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Behind the Headlines Surgeon Saves Lives in Bali Disaster: a ‘horrific Sight’ That He Won’t Forget

For Graeme Southwick, an early Sunday morning on an idyllic island launched a day that turned from a dream into a nightmare.Southwick was relaxing by the pool of his hotel in Bali after attending a plastic surgeon’s conference when he learned of the night club bombing that had claimed more than 180 lives the day before.

Southwick, 55, an active member of Australia’s Jewish community, immediately contacted the island’s only hospital, in the capital of Denpasar. “At that stage, no one knew how severe or serious matters were,” Southwick told JTA.

Hospital staff initially told Southwick, the president of the Society of Australian Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, that everything was under control. A few hours later, however, he received a phone call from a plastic surgeon in Jakarta asking for his help.

Southwick ended up working 15 hours straight. Today, 64 victims are on the road to recovery thanks to the efforts of his medical team, which worked in cramped wards with limited supplies.

“I was not prepared for what I saw,” he said. “The hospital was jammed with patients.”

The attack is believed to be the work of Jemaah Islamiah, a group headed by a 64-year-old Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, that has links to Al-Qaida. Bashir blames the United States for the attack.

In addition to the dead, who come from around the world, 300 people are injured and 200 are missing.

When Southwick got to the hospital, he immediately set about prioritizing the caseload.

The Australian government had promised to send an Air Force medical unit to assist the doctors, but it was not due for several hours. So Southwick and his team — which included a second-year plastic surgeon trainee from Australia who was on holiday, and his wife, a third-year trainee as an anesthetist — went to work helping people who had suffered burns over as much as 80 percent of their bodies.

“We were able to persuade the Indonesian authorities to let us tackle the European and North American patients first, and we set about identifying as many as we could so that those outside searching for loved ones would know that we had them under our care,” Southwick said. “Many volunteers arrived to help, some with no nursing experience and others who could help.”

Many tourists offered blood, but facilities for transfusions weren’t available and it was difficult for the medical team to even ascertain patients’ blood groups.

They also lacked items like surgical instruments, drugs and even rubber gloves.

Southwick’s team was able to visit some smaller hospitals and stabilize their patients as well.

The first plane from the Royal Australian Air Force arrived about 10 p.m. on Sunday, and Southwick’s team sent patients to the airport in a convoy of nine ambulances, each carrying three wounded.

With more space available in the wards, Southwick was able to identify additional Australian and English patients. He began to stabilize them and prepare them for evacuation to Australia, where they could be treated in proper burn units.

At one stage, 64 patients were lying on the tarmac of Denpasar airport waiting for a flight to Australia. The Air Force had set up a temporary, open-air ward on the tarmac, with a series of ropes holding intravenous drips.

Southwick recalled the case of one woman whose name he never learned.

“She was about 18 and had severe burns around the respiratory area as well as brain damage. We sent her on the first available flight” to Australia, but she died en route, he said.

Most of the patients were on pain medication and remained conscious during the stabilization and evacuation process, Southwick said.

“The patients were wonderful. Some refused painkillers, as they thought others needed them more,” he said.

Despite his years as a doctor, nothing had prepared Southwick for the experience in Bali.

“I have never seen injuries on such a dreadful scale. It was a horrific sight which will remain in my memory forever,” he said.

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