Sari Timur, Determined doctor on a mission

Duncan Graham, Contributor/The Jakarta Post, Christchurch, New Zealand | Tue, 10/25/2011 7:00 AM

If it wasn’t for her giant backpack Sari Mutia Timur, a woman of slight build even by Indonesian standards, would be easily overlooked.

Which would be a mistake, for she could save your life, not just with her medical skills but also through the message she carries.

For Dr. Sari is a disaster response worker and educator, work that’s now getting recognized as an academic disciple abroad.

She’s also a no-nonsense operator, more interested in the big picture than small talk or what people think of her. Though weighed down like a tiny Atlas, the staunchly independent woman moves nimbly; what’s 12 kilograms of laptop and documents, books and clothes when you need to be prepared?

“We have to think ahead, get ready, develop the skills and knowledge to survive when things go wrong,” she said. “Learning how to be self reliant is essential.”

Despite regularly confronting horror and misery, Dr. Sari looks a decade younger than her 36 years and doesn’t fit the image of a dapper doctor from an elite campus. She has enough overseas experience and qualifications to set up a lucrative practice as a general practitioner writing scripts for the worried well, but prefers to work with the damaged poor.

In any case, white coats aren’t ideal for scrambling across shattered masonry and wading through mud and ash; victims are more interested in a doctor’s skill applying eye-pads than eyeliner.

Sari has just spent a week studying the latest emergency response developments in New Zealand, a country that shares an uncomfortable place with Indonesia on the Ring of Fire. This is the geological feature that blows up mountains, tears the earth asunder and sweeps tree-high waves through villages.

The clean-up is still underway from the Feb. 22 earthquake that killed 181 in the New Zealand city of Christchurch when a shallow 6.3 shock hit the central business district.

Also underway are the inquiries. Why did one building collapse while its neighbor shook, but stayed upright? Was the city prepared? What things could have been done differently?

One of the first places Sari visited in Wellington was the hospital, which has been fitted with base isolators, a New Zealand invention. These large plugs of rubber and lead support the building on concrete piles set deep in the ground. It quivers, but doesn’t crumble.

“There’s no point in saving a hospital in an earthquake if the facilities inside can’t function,” said Sari. “Ensuring the building is accessible, has electricity and water and the equipment is intact and working is equally important.”

Sari is division manager for the Yogyakarta-based Yakkum Emergency Unit (YEU).

After the fall of the Soeharto regime a series of natural and man-made emergencies demanded a humanitarian response that wasn’t always met by existing services.

Enter YEU in 2001 as an offshoot of the Christian Foundation for Public Health. A map of its activities marked with red dots makes the archipelago look like a bad case of chicken pox.

Sari’s visit to New Zealand was sponsored by an NGO, the NZ-Indonesia Association and supported by the Indonesian Embassy.

Association president Nigel Connell, a civil engineer who has spent several years in Indonesia, said Sari was invited to New Zealand to learn about the latest developments in responding to disasters.

She was also asked to share her experiences and skills. In a low-tech society, where natural disasters often occur in remote areas, victims without splints and painkillers must improvise to survive using local resources, like sandals for neck braces and banana leaves for bandages

Sari’s parents are in business but she was more interested in community service. After studying for eight years at Gadjah Mada University she went to Timor Leste and worked in the emergency room at Dili National Hospital.

Here she served alongside doctors and nurses from several nations where she learned that skills and compassion are more important than appearance and status.

Later she took specialist courses in disease management, studied for a Master of Nursing degree at Australia’s Charles Darwin University, and visited New Orleans after 2005’s hurricane Katrina.

After joining YEU she spent three and a half years in Aceh, arriving shortly after the tsunami when hundreds of corpses still lay unburied. To get to the disaster site she had to battle soldiers demanding large sums for helicopter transport.

She’s witnessed more trauma and emotional distress than many of her Western counterparts, yet remains resilient. Handling obstructionist authorities, distressed people who give up or become enraged, are jealous because they don’t get the best aid or resist help, is all part of the job.

Along the way she also found time to marry an IT consultant and become a mother of twins.

“In New Zealand most families only shop once every week unlike Indonesia where a daily trip to the market is common,” said Sari. “So Kiwi kitchens usually have lots of packaged food which would help the family survive for a few days.

“Deep under the Parliament in Wellington is the National Crisis Management Centre where senior officials can control disaster responses even if all power and communication systems outside have been destroyed.”

Sari said she hoped her visit to New Zealand would encourage lecturers in disaster management to teach in Indonesia and for academics to use evidence-based research to determine the best emergency responses.

“I retain my medical registration, but feel more comfortable working in the field,” she said. “My visit to New Zealand has shown that we share many problems, but the responses are different. We need to empower people so they’re ready for disasters and can cope before the professionals come to the rescue.

“The reality is that this takes time. People need to know how to look after themselves and their neighbors. This is the message I want to deliver.”

Source: The Jakarta Post