Birdsall ’02, left, with a patient and a baby she delivered
in a tent lit by a flashlight at a relief camp in Muzzfarabed,
Birdsall and Dr. Tahir Chauhdry, a physician from Rochester,
N.Y., tend to a head wound of a girl injured by falling rubble
during the earthquake in Pakistan.
city of Balakot, located near the earthquake’s epicenter.
by grief’ Nurse Stacia Birdsall ’02 finds ‘strength
and grace’ among the devastation
Stacia Birdsall ’02, a National Health Service Corps
scholar at the Yale School of Nursing, learned of a critical need
for female clinicians in the wake of the earthquake that struck
Pakistan Oct. 8. She applied to go to Pakistan with a team of doctors
and students affiliated with Yale School of Medicine and led by
a Pakistani doctor from Griffin Hospital in Derby, CT. The group
was in the country from Oct. 23 to Nov. 6, working in medical relief
camps run by the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association. Following
is her account of the trip:
Even weeks after returning, it’s difficult to process the
devastation we saw in northeastern Pakistan. The numbers –
almost 80,000 dead, even more injured, and three million left homeless
– are overwhelming, but it’s my patients’ faces,
their smiles and kisses and tears, that still tether my heart to
On our first day we visited Balakot, the city nearest the quake’s
epicenter. I’d been told it was once one of the loveliest
spots in the country. Now it was completely reduced to heaps of
rubble, the air heavy with the stench of dead bodies. From there
we went on to Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered
Kashmir, where I worked with a team of doctors and surgeons in a
field hospital that saw 1,200 to 1,500 patients a day. As a new
registered nurse, I put my basic nursing skills to use, giving injections
of antibiotics, painkillers, and tetanus vaccine; cleaning and bandaging
wounds; tending to IVs; and fetching food and tea for our patients.
As camp midwife, I also looked after the pregnant women, managed
the normal births, and assisted with C-sections.
I examined my patients and delivered babies in the “ob/gyn
suite” we set up in a dirt-floored supply tent with no heat,
and often no light. In the chilly night air, steam would rise off
the babies as they came slipping into the world in my hands. The
stories I heard in that tent were heartbreaking. One of the moms
I cared for had lost 45 members of her extended family. Another
had lost her husband and other child; yet another didn’t want
to leave our camp because she feared her family’s tent wasn’t
warm enough for her new baby. A well-educated, middle-class pregnant
woman told me, “I was taking prenatal vitamins, but then my
house fell down.” One of our patients had had two miscarriages
and a stillbirth and her husband had threatened to take another
wife if she didn’t have a child, so we decided to do a C-section.
The generator died after we got her anesthetized, but the obstetrician
went ahead and did the surgery without power. Thankfully, mom and
baby did just fine.
Among our patients on the inpatient ward was a family with six
injured children, including one boy who probably suffered a concussion
and went into a coma after not eating or drinking for 10 days. His
mom was convinced he was possessed by a jinn (an evil demon), and
at first told us not to touch him. On one of our worst nights, an
old man died in the camp and then a few hours later, a little boy
died, the only one of his mother’s four children to have survived
the earthquake. Holding her as she sobbed, we felt that we were
inundated by far too much grief for one mother – or one nation
– to endure.
And yet the human spirit does endure. In quieter moments I sat
with my patients, chatting in my limited and apparently rather amusing
Urdu. Amid incredible tragedy, these women were warm, generous,
resilient. On my last day in the camp, one of them slipped the bangles
off her wrist and placed them on mine. “Gift,” she said.
I had come to give of my time and skill, but in their strength and
grace, they gave me far more in return.
Stacia Birdsall ’02 was born and raised in Tokyo, where
her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. At Princeton she majored
in anthropology with certificates in women’s studies and East
Asian studies. After graduation she spent a year as a Princeton-in-Asia
intern, working with Save the Children/US in Nepal and Bhutan, before
starting at Yale School of Nursing, where she is completing her
master’s in nurse-midwifery.