08 February, 2005


My mum had the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka to do volunteer work on tsunami relief, by way of her employer (Mass. General Hospital, where she works as a psychiatric social worker). The gig was a month long and was managed by the U.S. Navy. Naturally, she was excited about going, and I and everyone else I spoke to encouraged her to go on what was sure to be a very interesting voyage.

Well, it turns out she's not going. She heard back from a few of the people from her unit who are already there, all of whom say that the experience has been abysmal. The civilian medics are all treated as part of the crew, which means they have to perform crew chores, like cleaning latrines and scrubbing decks. The efficacy of occupying their time with menial tasks when they are ostensibly in place to provide medical services is perhaps a little questionable. But it gets worse: the navy ship on which they are stationed is actually out at sea. There is little opportunity for contact with patients - they have to be flown in via helicopter. There are no on-site accommodations for the volunteer medics, and they are rarely flown out to land. In some instances, they are forbidden - one woman was told that she couldn't fly because she did not know her blood type. What this amounts to is a terrible paucity of actual medical treatment - one nurse complained that in three weeks there, she had only seen a single patient.

Some of them have it worse. Apparently the Navy requires all the civilians to pass a training course in order to be allowed to do their work. One woman failed to pass one of her tests (jumping into a boat from the ship) and was confined to her bunk.

On the other hand, it seems like there would be work for a mental health professional like my mum after all: one of the nurse managers is depressed because he imagined he would be doing valued relief work rather than scrubbing toilets.

All of it sounds remarkably fishy to me. My hunch - the Navy, short on manpower, settled on this as a handy scheme to secure a host of civilian indentured servants. Not a far-fetched notion, I think. The armed forces are definitely overextended.

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