Stench of death chases patients away from Sri Lankan hospital

The stubborn stench hanging in the air at the small Sri Lankan district hospital where more than 150 corpses have been brought is so bad that a policeman is retching in the front garden.

"We have room for only two bodies" in refrigeration, says Dr. Manorie Talgaswatta, who was on duty when the first casualties arrived here Sunday after the deadly tsunami hit the normally tranquil coastal village of Tangalle.

"We were separating the dead bodies from the rest and leaving them on the floor because there was no room. Some of the dead were taken to their neighbours or relatives before we even recorded them," she says.

Within half an hour, the four doctors on duty ran out of the medicines they needed and sent an ambulance to fetch their pharmacist for access to more.

"In the end, we didn’t even have any plasters left," she says.

Hours later, medical reinforcements arrived with extra supplies and more than 750 people were treated, Talgaswatta says. Most were suffering from respiratory distress and lucky to be alive after nearly drowning.

Many were admitted to beds here but by late Tuesday only 20 remained, the stink from the corpses rotting in the humidity and the floors awash with blood and grime too horrendous for the sick to bear.

"They left as soon as possible. The floors were only cleaned today… some people left against our medical advice," she says, speaking several hours after most of the dead were finally taken away for a mass burial by the government.

Now the 152-bed facility is almost deserted, but still the corpses come, another ambulance unloading two more wrapped in plastic. They wait to be claimed under a boddhi tree, covered with flies.

Exhausted nurses gather in the empty concrete corridors wearing handkerchiefs or face masks in a bid to avoid the smell.

Twenty-eight kilometres (miles) along a road lined with countless houses flying makeshift white flags outside — a mark of respect for the dead — lies the larger fort city of Matara, where the latest official death count is 560.

At the general hospital’s reception area, a computer screen flashes an endless stream of gruesome photographs of victims yet to be identified. Dozens of anxious relatives and some who are merely curious huddle around.

"We really need medicines now. Pain killers and antibiotics. The main patient complaint is pain," says intern doctor Shamila Imbulapitiya, who was flown back from her break in Colombo by helicopter to help treat the survivors.

She has been treating mainly fractures and cuts at the 990-bed hospital and says many wounds are becoming infected from the salt water and mud.

The tsunami reached 200 metres (yards) from the main hospital building, with her own quarters here inundated, ruining her own papers and leaving her effectively homeless.

"Just like a patient, I slept in the ward… it’s our duty. I’m happy to be helping the people who have been affected by the floods," she says.

Dr. Asanga Balasuriya, working with the emergency treatment unit, says Sri Lanka has never seen anything like this — even its terrible and infamous suicide bombers have not wrecked such widespread devastation.

"There are so many bodies, so many patients, it’s taking time. We couldn’t cope. Now with the donations, we are okay, and the admissions are going down, we can cope," he says.

Many patients now, however, need to be urgently treated in the temporary refugee camps that have been set up in schools and temples.

"If someone in the family has died, and they have minor injuries, they don’t want to come here."

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