When the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis touched down in 2008, nurse Sa Naing Naing was working at the Haigyi Island hospital in Irrawaddy Division, where his actions helped to save the lives of 26 people.
On 12 May he was announced as a recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal from the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRCRC). The award, which this year was granted to thirty-six nurses and nursing aides from 18 countries, recognises “exceptional courage and devotion to victims of armed conflict or disaster”.
DVB spoke to Sa Naing Naing to find out more about his experience.
Q: We understand that you won the Florence Nightingale Medal for rescuing patients at your hospital during Cyclone Nargis. Can you tell us more about what happened on that fateful day?
A: A strong storm came in at around 10 in the morning on 2 May, 2008. Within just a couple of hours, the hospital’s roofs were blown away, ceilings were collapsing and water was steadily rising in the building. The patients were asking me what to do. At first, we stacked hospital beds together and climbed on top of them, but the water kept rising and we had to climb up even further onto the ceiling joists.
Another male nurse and one of the patients’ carers was also there. Together, we began pushing and pulling everyone up onto the joists. We stayed there for about five hours, from 1pm until around 6pm. The wind was very strong and rain kept slamming down on us, so heavily in fact that many of us were bruised.
Q: How did the patients cope?
A: Among the patients in our ward was a mother with her newborn twins. After pushing them up onto the joists in the ceiling, I hung on to a door frame below them and, when the water had subsided to chest-level, I asked her how her kids were. She told me that one of them had stopped breathing and was turning blue, and in a panic threw the child to me. As there was no medical equipment, I pressed my ear against his chest and tried to listen to his heartbeat. His heart was beating very slowly and I gave him CPR until he began showing signs of life and making sounds. Then the mother handed me another child, saying he also had stopped breathing. I realised he had mucus blocking his windpipe and I had to suck it out mouth-to-mouth.
Q: Did the children survive?
A: One of them died from hemorrhagic dengue fever aged 5, and the other is now aged seven. His parents called him Nargis Maung Maung.
Q: So there was another male nurse with you. Why do you think the ICRC awarded only you the medal?
A: Maybe because I climbed down from the ceiling to bring the two children up while no one else had the guts to do that, and that I managed to save their lives. I thought I was going to die.