Just weeks after 2004’s tsunami disaster in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and South India, registered dietitian Martha Lynch, MS, RD, LDN, FADA, CNSD, joined healthcare providers from across the country on a humanitarian aid mission. “Never in a million years did I think I would find myself aboard the 900-foot Navy hospital ship Mercy in the Strait of Malacca,” says Lynch. “Yet there I was, alongside nearly a hundred other medical volunteers from dozens of hospitals, medical associations and academic institutions.”
Lynch had volunteered through Project HOPE, an international organization that was recruiting practitioners through Massachusetts General Hospital, where Lynch is assistant director for clinical nutrition services.
The USNS Mercy sailed to the Indonesian coastal city of Banda Aceh and transportation between the vessel and land was by helicopter. “There were three hospitals in Banda Aceh, all of which lost their equipment and most of their personnel in the tsunami disaster,” says Lynch. “Two feet of thick mud and four feet of water covered the first floor of the structures, but the hospitals functioned as best they could.”
Most of the patients who came aboard were in need of nutritional care, and Lynch and the ship’s Navy dietitian tackled a range of challenges—from optimizing nutrition for children who’d developed brain abscesses and planning soft diets for patients with jaw injuries to giving breastfeeding advice to mothers of rehydrated children.
“Patients were eager to have their pictures taken and many of them taped their photographs above their beds,” says Lynch, adding that a psychiatrist on board had said this was therapeutic because they’d lost their homes, families and communities—major components of our identities. “A step toward reconstructing those identities was seeing photographs of themselves… tangible evidence that they had survived, that they still exist and that they were not alone,” says Lynch.