The Great March, as seen by a doctor

Author: NYG Original title: Ezt látta az orvos a nagy menetelésben
Publication:,  Photo:MTI – Zsolt Szigetváry Date: 15:31 07/09/2015

The Great March, as seen by a doctor

Pediatrician Dóra Scheiber accompanied the refugees setting off from Keleti Railway Station toward Vienna to (the Hungarian town of – trans.) Zsambek. While helping children with fever or people marching with numb legs, she also recognized a psychological phenomenon of which policemen and, should they be deployed, soldiers as well should take notice. Dóra Scheiber recorded her experiences (from the weekend of September 5 and 6 – trans.). 

Three of us doctors were helping out in the transit zone of Nyugati Railway Station when we received a request to join a group from Migration Aid carrying food, water and blankets alongside the refugees walking besides motorway 1,

A 17-year-old boy from Pakistan, who speaks four languages, was assigned to me as an interpreter.

Sad is a very intelligent boy, who was threatened at home because he pursued his studies at the military academy. I expected that he would also leave for Austria, but to my greatest surprise he asked to return to Nyugati Railway Station after accompanying the refugees to their destination. He felt it important not to abuse the trust of Migration Aid, indicated by a badge that featured his name in casual handwriting. This badge was the official proof that I was not a human smuggler, that the teenager refugee accompanying me was commissioned to do so by Migration Aid.

Examination couch made of a curtain

We were joined by Christian, a fourth-year medical student from Norway who studies in Budapest, and Andi Torman, a colleague (originally, she came by only to say hi). We really needed their help, but by the end of the day our interpreter, Sad has also turned into a real paramedic.

We took bandages, skin disinfectants, allergy medication, fever reducers and painkillers – a lot of the latter was used up by the end of the day, mostly for muscle pains – ready baby formula, asthma medication (it was really in need), gloves, spatulas for ointments, hand and equipment sanitizers, and several recyclable curtains to use as our “examination couches”.

Civilians helping out asked for the gloves. We shared these with them whereas they helped to locate calcium and magnesium tablets for us. For the most part, we should have taken isotonic drinks with us instead. The sight of hands and feet in tetany spasms that had people wriggling, suffering and screaming from pain was the most shocking experience of the night. Most of these people would not have been able to stagger over to our car with their aching numb legs.

Food, blankets, water and prams were placed every 5 kilometres for the huge crowd numbering 500 to 800 people.

Exhausted children in the night

It was touching to see residents of neighbouring settlements full of goodwill and empathy bring donations without prior organization as well as the aid supplied by NGOs, no matter how exaggerated. This despite the fact that, because of the disorganization of the effort, the food and clothes donations that had been delivered with such great intentions ended up scattered all over the ground and at times may have been trod upon.

When the group reached Zsámbék, the exhausted group went to sleep within about two hours. We also wanted to leave, but as the news that we were there spread, we were called to people further and further away from our car: the real work has just begun.

Among the sleeping crowd, we were led to children and women vomiting, feverish and exhausted. We tried to help people bundled in blankets in the complete darkness, using the light from our phones and torches. As everything was disorganized, we had no other option.

We cared for about 80 people altogether. Many people with sore legs, heavy breathing due to exhaustion, vomiting. An ambulance had been sent to the scene, with a Syrian doctor speaking Hungarian. A paramedic also joined us after having walked to our location from a neighbouring settlement. At one o’clock in the morning I felt that we were very tired, and although there would have been work for us to do, we had to stop for our own sake.

I assessed some things incorrectly: we should have brought at least two or three more packages of antibiotics for the children alone, five to ten more rehydrating drinks, which would have been marvellous for muscle pains. Yet, Sad and Christopher still carried an admirable amount.

We must think about recycling

By the end of the day Sad decided to leave his military career and become a doctor. I wished him success and left him at the Nyugati transit zone early in the morning with an uneasy heart. When we set off for Budapest, one fifth of the group was already in the buses. Blankets, unopened mineral water bottles, abandoned prams, clothes covered the ground everywhere.

I hoped that someone would collect these items, so that they can help the crowds of refugees yet to arrive, because their flow will multiply in the future, and someone, somewhere has to keep up with it.

Walking towards the car we tried to convince the enthusiastic locals continuously arriving not to leave any more packages of nappies, food and drink in the drizzling rain for the group which, at this point, was only trying to rest, because others will need it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.

The transit zone was almost empty on Sunday

Following the previous evening, Sunday was calm in the Nyugati transit zone. An enthusiastic team of paramedics waited for patients in an excellently equipped metal container. Tents set up because of the rain were being disassembled by volunteers so that those arriving the next day would also have a place to sleep.

The abundance seemed a little bit pointless, but it was obvious that the volunteers were trying to adapt to the new situation, the calmness following the huge crowd. The transit was practically empty at 7 p.m. An excited group of 25-30 refugees set off in the drizzle afresh with five children, two of them in their arms. One of them had a cough, but not a worrisome one.

Almost everybody left the transit zone immediately upon arrival. It is certain that if anyone reaches Zsámbék today, they will be exhausted. Paramedic points should be set up next to their itinerary in Western Hungary. New challenges have been created, it seems, yet again.

I was grabbed by depersonalization

At the senior staff meeting on Sunday we discussed the burnout and exhaustion among the volunteer doctors. We are not experienced in disaster management, rescue operations or traumatology. We do not encounter this phenomenon in our usual practice: cases like this that are not terribly risky from a medical point of view, but which, given their occurrence on such a massive scale, may nevertheless be considered severe.

The high number of people seen on the previous day was in itself enough for me to feel symptoms of depersonalization.

This is a part of my own, mildly physiological yet undoubtedly post-traumatic stress. Upon diagnosing it I am trying to make a conscious effort to recover by using the next two days to rest.

Attention should be called to this among those who work in disaster management, the police and the military. If they are in constant contact with the refugees the risks involved include this depersonalized state of mind, a state in which one can only perceive a faceless mass instead of real people. Attention needs to be called to this to help avoid the resurfacing of this stress in the form of atrocities on either side.

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