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Surviving the Tsunami

On December 26, 2004, Dwayne Meadows, Ph.D., a graduate of a Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) of NOLS Wilderness Advanced First-Aid course, was in his hotel room in Khao Lak, Thailand. Then the tsunami hit, and Meadows fought a harrowing battle against the water, followed by days providing first aid to survivors. These excerpts from emails show how Meadows, who works with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu, put his WMI skills to use in ways he never imagined.

The Tsunami Hits

WMI grad Dwayne Meadows

I was in my bungalow 20 yards from the ocean when the tsunami hit. I heard people yelling and excited. Soon after, I heard a distant rumb-ling roar. I saw people looking out at the ocean. All the water had left the ocean for maybe a quarter mile out. And you could see the wave coming about a quarter mile away. It looked like a vertical wall of sandy water, topped by white foam.

There wasn’t enough time to get to high ground. I was washed through the bungalow and out the partially collapsed wall. I was underwater a long time—maybe 30 to 60 seconds. I remember swirling around, and lots of things banging into me, but nothing hit me too hard. I remember the water was so black. 

I got to the surface and breathed in so deeply I felt I was gagging. I quickly grabbed onto a piece of plastic foam. I was being washed into and through trees. I was starting to be washed back out to the ocean.

Getting to Shore

I got my first chance to start to think ahead about what I could do and assess the situation. I looked around and realized I was about 400 yards offshore.  I started to swim.

I realized that my left knee and hip were hurt and couldn’t support a lot of weight.  I didn’t really notice the sprained ankle yet. I saw that my hands were all cut up and bleeding, every knuckle, as well as a deep cut on my right hand, a moderately deep slash on my left outer wrist that looked deep enough to get an artery, and a deep cut on my inner left pinkie. My legs were bleeding, but I hardly noticed. I just tried to get away quickly.

The Second Wave

On the beach, I saw some women and told them we should go up the beach to safety. They resisted. So I told them we could look for their families up there. Finally, they followed. I led, looking for a route. There was debris everywhere, including glass and sharp metal. That’s when we saw our first few bodies. I told myself not to look at the gore any more than I had to.

Someone saw the second wave and started to yell. I turned and saw it coming. So I ran like hell. The wave was not so big and we were safe.

First Aid Begins

We were at the Phu Khao Lak Resort, where injured people were laying out amongst all the debris. I came across some guys from a dive shop who were giving first aid. I introduced myself and told them I had advanced training. Maybe 15 minutes later the dive shop guys came and asked me for help with a little boy who was not breathing well. When I checked him over, I realized he had a high respiratory rate, and the bluest face and lips I’d ever seen, but no evidence of an obstructed airway or inhaled or swallowed water. When I removed a bandage someone had put on the boy, I saw that he had a two-inch by one-inch chest wound that went clear through to his chest cavity.

I sealed up the bandage and within a couple of minutes, he started to breathe easier and pink up.  My confidence in my first aid ability started to grow. 

I mustered some arrogance and tried to reassure people that I was trained as a “paramedic.” That is a word I ended up using a lot that day as it translates into German and Thai. 

Others started to come to me for help. I saw a finger amputation and tried to get ice and make sure they kept pressure and elevation. I had no supplies beyond a few little bandages, some Betadine and other useless stuff. Another bad hand wound was treated as best we could.

I decided to check on everyone from the camp systematically from bottom to top. I took 100 pain killers from someone, and that was my first-aid kit. I started to get into a routine of looking for big bleeders, chest injuries and evidence of head wounds.

I developed my spiel about what to do and what to look for and tried to get friends, family or less hurt victims to look after the worst cases. There was no power or cell phone and no communication. We kept doing first aid all day. We were still expecting help to arrive any time.

Medical Help Arrives

A pediatric nurse from Germany finally arrived. We started cleaning and bandaging everything. She had some gauze, steri-strips, three little one-ounce Betadines and one or two similar sized mercurochrome bottles. Later on, a doctor from Serbia joined us.  He had a backpack with some drugs and supplies. He looked over the work I did on the small boy and said I did fine and that he didn’t need to double check my work.  Our work continued...

Getting Treated

Much later, I was hustled into a wheelchair at a hospital. I was too weak and tired to do anything. I spent two nights in the hospital and then was evacuated to Bangkok. I left Bangkok for home on Dec 30, where I continue to recover.

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