Doctors join the Kerala flood relief effort

Two Trust doctors, who volunteered to help with the flood relief efforts in Kerala after finding themselves caught up in the worst flooding to hit the south Indian state in nearly a century, have been reflecting on their experiences.

Severe floods and landslides hit Kerala in the summer of 2018, due to unusually high rainfall during the monsoon season. Tragically, over 480 people died and it is estimated about a million people were evacuated. Thirty-five out of the fifty-four dams within the state were opened for the first time in history.

Dr Miriam Isaac, a Consultant Psychiatrist for the National Deaf Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), was on holiday in Kerala with her family when she found herself at the centre of the crisis.

Airports were closed due to the severity of conditions on the ground and Miriam and her family found themselves stranded in Kerala. Miriam was compelled to find out how she could volunteer to help with the early stages of the relief effort.

“There was extensive damage and there was an atmosphere of panic”, she said. “Lots of people were trying to get in touch with their missing loved ones through social media and the rescue centres needed basic supplies.”

“Amazingly, shops opened their doors to the relief workers and donated food, medicine and clothing. I was part of a team collecting supplies to take to the relief centres.”

“It was an incredibly intense experience, but the unconditional support from the community was heart-warming.”

Miriam was working as a junior doctor in psychiatry at a London hospital during the London bomb attacks of 2005 and was able to apply similar skills for coping in an emergency during her time in Kerala.

“My family was lucky not to be personally affected by the floods but I could see that other families were vulnerable so I knew I had to get involved.”

Miriam says the recent experience has had a real impact on her life. Since returning to the UK she has taken part in a workshop for psychological first aid and has been supporting first responders using social media. She has also recorded a video blog and written an article about the response to the floods.

Looking back, she added “In this uncertain world, what brings us together is far stronger than that which divides us.”

Coincidentally, another Trust doctor was also visiting family in Kerala at the time of the flooding. Dr Anuradha Menon, a Consultant Psychiatrist in Adult Community and Psychotherapy Services had just landed in Kerala when the dams were opened.

Anu worked as a junior doctor in Bombay earlier in her career and says that while she’s been involved in dealing with emergency life or death situations before, nothing could have prepared her for the scale of this disaster.

“Hundreds of villages were flooded, leaving people homeless and separating them from loved ones. I vividly remember the agony of one family who had lost two children in the muddy waters during the rescue operation. People were traumatised and in need of help.”

Anu describes her response not as a medic but rather as a human being. “Early on private individuals grouped together – we bought supplies and took them to affected villages. The news coverage of the flooding was excellent, so soon more supplies were donated and distributed this time by the organised response teams. The community really pulled together.”

Since returning to the UK Anu says she has felt dazed, but is proud that she played a part in helping affected families. “It was a very intense experience, one that I will never forget. I feel that having visited the families personally and spoken to them about their losses has made a big difference to the way I view the impact of the disaster.”

For more information about volunteering, and for information about conferences and workshops, visit the Royal College of Psychiatrists website.