Spirit of Hong Kong 2014

Surgeon helped quake survivors live again

Dr Poon Tak-lun was at the scene within 72 hours of 2008 Sichuan quake - and continued to help for five years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 12:07pm

Possibly the most traumatic sight for Dr Poon Tak-lun in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was the trucks queuing to carry away the dead from the main areas around the epicentre in Wenchuan.

"Each truck could carry 40 to 50 bodies," he says from his office in Central, while showing photographs from that time. Poon, a specialist in orthopaedics and traumatology, has served with the Red Cross as a volunteer for more than 30 years and with colleagues from Hong Kong he was helping survivors of the disaster within 72 hours of the quake.

"The day of the earthquake - May 12, 2008 - was a public holiday in Hong Kong," he recalls. "I remember passing a newspaper stand on the way to the office where it was reported that a major earthquake had happened in Sichuan. The death toll at the time was 10,000 but in serious disasters like this, it becomes 10 times that."

The medical team arrived in Chengdu in the small hours of the morning, loaded up with first-aid kits, basic medical equipment, antibiotics and antiseptics. They had to walk the last kilometre because the road was so badly damaged near Beichuan , where the high school had collapsed, killing hundreds of students and teachers.

"Our first-aid tent was right in front of the high school rubble," Poon recalls. "We had a team of seven people. Two surgeons, an orthopaedic surgeon, which was me, two accident and emergency doctors, one nurse and one liaison officer."

Poon is among 24 nominees shortlisted for the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards 2014. The South China Morning Post asked eight non-governmental organisations this year to recommend people they feel serve the community; conserve our heritage; have overcome personal challenges to achieve; conduct their business in a socially responsible way or use innovation for good by introducing new products that can help our society, among other categories.

The nominees' stories will appear in the newspaper until mid-September, when the panel of eight judges will decide on the winners of seven categories and the public will vote on their favourite nominee before the winners are announced in mid-October. Poon has been nominated by the Hong Kong Red Cross for the "Personal Contribution to the Community" award.

Of his work in 2008, Poon recalled how hundreds of injured poured into their station, which consisted of a tent for medical supplies and some chairs.

"We were there for several days," says Poon. "We had a tent but there was nowhere to sleep. So we just took naps on stools and chairs. There was no hot food. With the hundreds we treated we were able to take the pressure off the local hospitals."

In more serious cases of survivors with severe injuries and bone fractures, Poon and his team would stabilise patients by attaching splints to the fractures and providing a drip for the person on a stretcher before they were taken to hospital.

But there were beautiful moments, too. A toddler who hadn't had water for four days was brought in lying limp in his mother's arms. A nurse gave him water and glucose and he was soon active, and they laughed in relief.

After the initial few days in Sichuan, Poon helped his Red Cross colleagues launch a rehabilitation service to help the quake survivors. With his help in collaborating with local partners in Sichuan, the Deyang Disabled People's Federation and Hong Kong Red Cross Rehabilitation and P&O Centre were set up in July 2008. For the following five years, Poon used nearly all his weekends and holidays travelling to Sichuan to provide treatment and surgery for the patients.

"To cope with all these people's needs we mobilised volunteers of different disciplines," says Poon. "We had prosthetists, physio and occupational therapists, anaesthetists, nurses, orthopaedic surgeons, medical doctors and clinical psychologists to help run the rehabilitation centre."