A powerful earthquake that struck Hualien on Tuesday last week caused a number of buildings to collapse, claiming many precious lives and injuring many people.
When buildings collapse during an earthquake, broken bones, amputations and spinal cord, traumatic brain and soft tissue and nerve injuries are often seen. Earthquakes can also cause fires that lead to casualties due to serious burns.
Another kind of injury was seen in Japan’s 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, which was immediately followed by a tsunami. While frantically trying to escape floodwaters, some people inhaled dirty water, leading to various respiratory complications, especially pneumonia.
Everyone knows the important role that physical therapists can play in the rehabilitation of such injuries, but few people know that physical therapists can also help in many ways on the scene of earthquakes and other natural disasters.
When major earthquakes struck Nepal three years ago, local physical therapists assisted on the scene of the disaster by dressing injured people’s wounds, applying plaster casts to stabilize broken bones, choosing suitable devices for the injured to use, giving them suitable exercise prescriptions and teaching them how to prevent complications.
For people with spinal cord injuries, which commonly occur in earthquakes, physical therapists can provide the right kind of assistance in the initial phase after injury to prevent more serious secondary injuries.
Similarly, physical therapists with experience in prosthetics and orthotics can talk to physicians about their effects on the long-term prognosis for people whose injuries make amputations necessary.
Physical therapists who specialize in burn injuries can quickly judge how seriously a patient is injured, treat the trauma and give the patient follow-up treatment.
There are also physical therapists who specialize in neurological disorders. As well as assisting in the rehabilitation of patients with severe brain trauma, they can also monitor those with milder brain traumas, who tend to be overlooked, to see whether they show signs of acute deterioration, including physical, cognitive and behavioral changes, to prevent sequelae.
Following the Hualien earthquake, physical therapists immediately mobilized to set up service stations in nearby emergency shelters to provide physical therapy services not only for disaster victims, but also to help rescue personnel recover their strength by treating any muscular and skeletal conditions they might have.
Taiwan’s particular geographical location means that it is frequently hit by earthquakes. When drawing up rescue plans for disasters, the government would do well to consider the ways in which other nations integrate physical therapy expertise in their rescue efforts.
As well as relieving some of the suffering caused by disasters, it could also make disaster relief more effective.
Lee Ying-chi is a lecturer in the physical therapy department at the Tzu Hui Institute of Technology.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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