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Stacia Birdsall ’02

Stacia Birdsall ’02, left, with a patient and a baby she delivered in a tent lit by a flashlight at a relief camp in Muzzfarabed, Azad Kashmir.

Stacia Birdsall ’02

Stacia 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.

Stacia Birdsall ’02

The devastated city of Balakot, located near the earthquake’s epicenter.

‘Inundated 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 Kashmir.

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.