Hospital Overwhelmed by Quake Victims

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Robert Siegel at a crowded hospital

In the city of Chengdu, China, there is a shortage of trained doctors, but plenty of unskilled volunteers. Despite the chaotic scene, workers at Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital are eager for more survivors, even though the hospital is over capacity. Makeshift wards are set up in the parking lot.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The death toll keeps climbing three days after the earthquake in southwestern China. The Chinese government now says nearly 15,000 people have died, but thousands more may be buried under rubble or unaccounted for. Our co-hosts, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel, are in that region of China.

Today, Robert visited a hospital in Chengdu that is treating victims from all over Sichuan province.

ROBERT SIEGEL: This is where the ambulances come from towns in the disaster area, the emergency room at Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital here in the provincial capital, Chengdu. Every few minutes, an ambulance arrives and disgorges two or three patients. Most suffer from broken bones and bad bruises. Since the earthquake, they have been rushed here in a steady stream of ambulances that make rapid round trips to towns that were hit hard but remain accessible.

Dr. Hu Weijian is in charge of the ER.

Dr. HU WEIJIAN (ER Chief, Sichuan Provincial People's Hospital): (Through translator): At this moment, we have taken in more than 550 injured.

SIEGEL: How many more patients can you handle before the hospital is simply overburdened?

Dr. WEIJIAN: (Through translator) As a matter of fact, we have already exceeded our capacity. But right now, we're trying our best to expand and to do what we can, and he's saying at least maybe another hundred or so, we could take in.

SIEGEL: In fact, there are shelters ready and waiting right in front of the hospital, shelters made of plywood and plastic sheeting. They're empty, but they could accommodate a sudden influx of patients. Volunteer nurses and student nurses are here in droves. As many as 20 of them line up and wait for each arrival. And when an ambulance does arrive, they swarm toward it with blue folding stretchers, and take the patients off to triage.

In this case, a woman with a leg injury is wheeled in. She's from a village just outside Du Jiang Yen - that's the town about 30 miles away where both a school and a hospital collapsed. The staff puts a cast on her right leg as we watch. Her husband is ecstatic about the service.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in Chinese)

SIEGEL: The soldiers, he says, found her right away. Our government, he says, is great. The Chinese government says 100,000 troops have been sent to the disaster area. Dr. Hu says that like this couple, most of the people the ER has treated come from around Du Jiang Yen.

Are there places that you haven't received patients from yet, that you are waiting to hear from?

Dr. WEIJIAN: (Through translator) We don't have all of them, and we're still waiting for people from Wenchuan - the surrounding areas. Now, we're getting the direction from the rescue center asking us to wait and to get ready to receive more from those disaster areas.

SIEGEL: Wenchuan is the epicenter of the quake. It has been reached by Chinese special forces, and reports say it is worse than had been expected. For Dr. Hu and the ER staff here in the city, the best news would be for the soldiers to find survivors there. And the ER chief says what he needs most is more medical staff.

Dr. WEIJIAN: (Through translator) Especially what we need is experienced doctors.

SIEGEL: And do you have blood? Do you have enough blood for transfusions?

Dr. WEIJIAN: (Through translator) We have enough, as far as I know. There's so many people giving blood around the city.

SIEGEL: The Chinese authorities say they've only sent the region about 3,000 pints of blood and plasma. But they expect they'll have to send more than six times that amount. Blood donations have become a major act of civic engagement for the people of Chengdu, especially younger people.

SIEGEL: In Tian Fu Square, at the center of the city, they sign in at a mobile blood donation center. It's in a bus that's parked in front of a pizzeria. There's a big red banner, Orego's Pizza Buffet's heart is with the disaster area. A volunteer, 20-year-old Wu Xiaomei(ph), was wearing a white sweatshirt with a blood drive logo, a hand over a heart.

She says the lines formed at 6 a.m. and by early afternoon, 150 people have given blood. And the line is still stretched around the corner, with dozens more waiting to give. She said she works at a beauty shop, which like many Chengdu businesses - short of water and worried about cracked walls - today remained closed.

And how did you become involved in volunteering?

Ms. WU XIAOMEI(ph) (Volunteer): (Through translator) Because today, my company is - it's off. We don't have to go to work. Therefore, I want to come here and be a volunteer and help the disaster areas.

SIEGEL: As Xiaomei spoke with us. a 55-year-old retired government worker named Ms. Gal(ph) came over. She was holding a stack of forms signed by blood donors.

Ms. GAL: (Through translator) My nephew - already given blood. My husband is a doctor who works at - and bones. He's already, his - has been working 50 hours nonstop already.

SIEGEL: And you're volunteering here with the blood drive?

Ms. GAL: (Through translator) Yes, I'm just a volunteer. I can't give them blood because I'm over 55.

SIEGEL: The places most damaged by this earthquake are, in normal times, within a few hours' drive of the city of Chengdu. And the young people, especially students whose schools are closed because of the quake, seem determined to help in the relief effort. The scene at the Communist Youth League building, a few blocks from the square, was an ebullient if chaotic demonstration of that determination.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in Chinese)

SIEGEL: A young man in a red baseball cap had a bullhorn and was calling out to the hundreds of volunteers, assigning them to gather in places depending on what they could do - soldiers here, those with medical skills there, those with cars in one place, those who want to give money in another. Others held up handwritten signs for each category, showing where to gather. Two young women, two nursing students, Cho Shau Dan(ph) and Lou Wen Wen(ph), came over to us and spoke in English.

Ms. CHO SHAU DAN (Nursing Student): We're volunteers.

SIEGEL: You're volunteers?

Ms. DAN: Yeah. Yeah. We want to help others.

Ms. LOU WEN WEN (Nursing student): Yeah, we will try our best to help.

SIEGEL: What do you hope to do? What kind of volunteer work do you want to do?

Ms. DAN: We want to go to the place where it happened - the earthquake - and we want to do our best to help them, save them. We want to try our best to help there.

SIEGEL: There was something ironic about the number and the palpable fervor of the volunteers of the Communist Youth League today. For several weeks, we've been trying to arrange a reporting of some volunteer activity organized by young communists at a local university. They seemed neither interested nor terribly active. To hear them tell it, there wasn't a lot going on. After the earthquake, that has obviously changed.

This is Robert Siegel. NPR News in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.

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