Osteopathic Physicians Join the Earthquake Relief Effort in Sichuan, China
Source: American Osteopathic Foundation
Chicago, Illinois—In the Sichuan province of China, May 12  carries the significance of September 11 in the United State because of the emotional impact of the magnitude-8 earthquake on that day that killed an estimated 69,000 people, injured 375,000, and left millions homeless. Responding to the disaster within just days of the quake were American Osteopathic Foundation (AOF) volunteers, Dr. Royce Keilers and Dr. William Burke, who joined in the medical relief effort. These osteopathic family physicians were accompanied by members of Heart to Heart International, a nonprofit organization that has been working with AOF on a family practice education initiative in China. Dr. Burke is director of the family practice residency program at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and Dr. Keilers is an AOF board member from La Grange, Texas.
The pair quickly dove into the task of caring for long lines of people. Their osteopathic skills dealing with neck and back injuries were immediately called upon, often by rescue workers who were moving huge piles of rubble. Dr. Burke said: “We performed manipulations outdoors, in a garage or in a tent, wherever they needed us.” Abrasions, wounds, cuts and other injuries required their attention as well.
Crossing cultural and language barriers was accomplished with the aid of medical interpreters. Additionally, Dr. Burke explained: “Just the power of touch, one of the basic principles of osteopathy, can transcend language and cultural barriers. We knew that our patients were benefiting from our concern and care. We could see it in their eyes.”
Dr. Keilers and Dr. Burke initially arrived in China’s earthquake-torn Sichuan province to find few visible signs of the devastation in Chengdu. “The most visible difference was the tents everywhere, lining the roads in every available space. Millions slept in tents outdoors, not necessarily because their homes were no longer standing, but because of the aftershocks,” said Dr. Burke.
This initial impression was quickly changed as they headed out to the most severely affected area. They traveled on perilous, washed-out roads through sagging tunnels and shaky bridges to reach the affected villages. “The mountain sides had shifted and rock slides took the roads and left boulders on many paths,” Dr. Keilers explained. To describe the devastation they saw, Dr. Keilers used this analogy: “I remember World War 2 and the bombing of British cities. This reminded me of that total destruction, with rubble and dust everywhere.”
The relationship of the osteopathic physicians to the Sichuan medical community had already been forged by the family practice initiative, but it was strengthened by this trip. Dr. Keilers said their Chinese healthcare colleagues and the government officials were grateful. “Again and again we were told: ‘For you to be here with us in the toughest of times and for us to know you care this much for us—that means a lot.’” Dr. Burke added: “The whole initiative is about sharing our expertise and developing and maintaining friendships among colleagues. We were given such heartfelt thanks that we knew they appreciated our presence.” Before the quake occurred, the pair already had plane reservations to make their third trip in 13 months to China to continue a long-term project to help the Sichuan government to build a family physician medical education partnership with health officials from the Sichuan Provincial Government. The mission changed when the quake hit.
In addition to treating injuries and triaging patients to the appropriate care, the team delivered care kits that included toys for the children and toothpaste and personal care supplies for the adults. After handing out dozens of kits to people who had lost their every possession, from the back of the crowd, Dr. Keilers heard the voice of a man shouting “I love you” in English. “I have never seen such devastation, but I have also never seen such resilience. People were helping each other. Some people even offered us their bottled water. It taught me how the simplest of gifts can make such a difference,” Dr. Keilers said. “For the kids, I think the toys were important for them mentally to regain some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Burke.
The osteopathic family physicians were well supplied by the Heart to Heart convoys carrying everything from bandages to IV fluids. When the quake hit, Heart-to-Heart teams quickly assessed the damage and determined what was needed. Dr. Keilers went to the airport at 1 am to meet a Fed Ex plane (a Heart to Heart partner) from Kansas City landing with tons of supplies. The highest Chinese health administrators, the Chinese military, U.S. government officials, and the American osteopathic physicians were there to receive the supplies. “The Chinese government did a wonderful job,” Dr. Burke emphasized. “The people had water and food and the military were putting up tents, clearing up rubble, and guarding the quake lakes to make sure the dams didn’t break.”
The most moving moment for Dr. Burke was at a school which collapsed and killed at least 400 students and teachers that fateful day. A circle of grieving adults, parents, friends and relatives surrounded the site. “In China, there is always noise but there was an eerie silence there. Many of the children were still trapped inside,” he said. “This small village lost a generation. Every family was affected.” A long road of grief and emotional recovery awaits the people of the region and the osteopathic physicians plan to go back to help prepare the medical students to deal with these symptoms as well as other potential health consequences of the earthquake.
“Everything that I’ve done in my professional life, working as a practicing osteopathic physician, prepared me to deal with the medical problems we encountered. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the devastation. With so many dead, so many affected, their tragedy becomes part of you. I will never forget it,” Dr. Keilers said. For Dr. Burke, the parallels with September 11 were clear. “The day 9/11 transformed our society. You didn’t have to have been in New York, Washington, DC or Pennsylvania to have been affected in a strong way. The day 5/12 has a similar impact there. In the airport, as the agent processed our tickets to return, she asked if we had been to the area. I turned to answer and saw that she was crying,” he said.
The osteopathic initiative to train family physicians in China will go on, strengthened by the bonds made during Dr. Keilers and Dr. Burke’s contributions to the earthquake recovery.
Additional photos below.