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Stories of the Brave and the Perseverant

Hospital emerges from rubble of 921

 
群眾的捐瑜與協力讓秀傳醫院在九二一震災之後能持續運轉,並成為地區的重要醫療資源。
 

By Sofia Wu CNA Staff Writer
 

Zhushan gas station was damaged by earthquake. ( Sep 27, 1999 CNA)

Shortly after the first shocks subsided in the massive earthquake that struck at 1: 47 a.m. September 21, 1999, the head nurse on duty at Chu Shang Show Chwan Hospital rushed to the wards on the seventh floor to check on the patients there.

She was greeted with a scene of panic. Patients who were able to walk were being evacuated from the wards with the help of their relatives, while other nurses besieged her for advice on how to deal with the patients on life-support.

"Let them stay in the ward, " Su Chen-hua responded. If the patients on life-support had to be removed, it would mean disconnecting their oxygen supplies.

But aftershocks continued to rattle the structure, prompting the hospital management to give the order to evacuate the building.

As Su and the rest of the nursing staff rushed about trying to evacuate the 147 patients and salvage what they could of the life-support equipment, all the they could see were warped doors and corridors, gaping ceilings, fallen rubble, broken fire hydrants spouting water, and collapsed walls.

The two-year-old private hospital, located just 65 meters from the Chelungpu fault line where the magnitude 7.3 quake was centered, was heavily damaged.

The 13-story building had been constructed in 1997 at a cost of NT$970 million (US$29.4 million), NT$200 million of which was a loan from the Department of Health's (DOH's) medical services development fund.

At the time, the Nantou County Choshui River area was listed by the DOH as one of the regions with the fewest medical resources, with fewer than 10 hospital beds for every 100,000 people.

Show Chwan Hospital was opened July 26, 1997 with the aim of making quality health care more accessible in the area. It was accredited as a regional teaching hospital July 1, 1999.

In the 26 months it had been in operation, however, its shareholders had not yet received any returns on their investments. On that fateful September day, it seemed that all the high hopes for the hospital were buried under the rubble of the earthquake that left some 2,500 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Initial estimates showed that it would take at least NT$150 million to repair or rebuild the hospital. If personnel costs were taken into account, the total restoration budget would skyrocket even further, and none of the shareholders were willing to invest any more than they already had.

Before the earthquake, Show Chwan Hospital's average monthly revenue was about NT$60 million. Now that it could no longer function normally, the administrators were at a loss to figure out how to pay its 500 staff.

Chuang Pi-kun, the hospital's vice president, recalled that when senior government officials visited the hospital during post-quake inspection tours, they promised government aid -- offers that never materialized.

"The offers of government aid were just hot air -- rainbows after the rain," he said. "Gradually, we came to understand that we had to rely only upon ourselves."

The main task at hand was to make the hospital functional again so that it could provide care to the earthquake survivors, and at the same time, chart a path for its own survival.

A week after the earthquake, the hospital managed to set up a field unit in Putou near Chushan, an operation that was gradually expanded to 10 medical departments and an emergency room.

The hospital also opened four health stations at elementary schools and at a military supply factory that was functioning as a shelter for earthquake survivors.

But this was not enough to put the hospital back on its feet and it was forced to trim its nursing staff and send some of its administrative personnel on leave without pay, with remaining staff reduced to half pay.

In addition to payroll costs, Show Chwan's expenditures on pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and building repairs were eating up its financial resources.

Hsieh Hui-lung, president of Show Chwan, said that he was often tempted to give up his goal of restoring the hospital. But he could not forget his commitment to upgrading the quality of medical services in remote regions, he said.

He recalled wandering around the building on the night of the earthquake, looking at the ruptures in the once pristine walls and wondering what future there was for the hospital.

But whatever doubts Hsieh might have had at that moment, his resolve to rebuild the hospital grew firmer with what seemed to him like a sign from Buddha.

Weeks after the earthquake, a patient came to Hsieh and handed him a check for NT$200,000.

The patient, surnamed Wu, had obtained the money from a government compensation program, as his house had been destroyed in the earthquake.


President Chen Shui-bian visited the Nantou County to oversee the reconstruction of the Show Chwan hospital.(Aug 11, 1999 CNA)

Hsieh refused to accept the money, but Wu insisted, saying it was a donation to help rebuild the hospital.

"I can convert my pig ranch into a new home," Wu assured him. "I'm donating this money to the hospital reconstruction fund on condition that you do not leave the hospital."

It seemed that this gesture gave wings to the efforts to restore the service and other offers of help and donations began to flow in. Hospitals in Changhua, Taoyuan, Yunlin, Tainan and other parts of the country donated medical equipment and other items to help Show Chwan Hospital resume operations.

Hwang Ming-ho, founder and chairman of the Show Chwan Hospitals Group, donated a 130-ping prefabricated building, while two major shipping companies, Yangming and Evergreen, rented the hospital 58 containers to be used as makeshift facilities.

On Nov. 1, 1999, the container hospital, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, opened to the public.

It boasted eight clinics, two operating theaters, 34 beds, a delivery room, a maternity ward, an examination room and an emergency room. It also had a registration/triage center, waiting room, pharmacy and various equipment necessary to deliver quality health care.

On Nov. 5, the first baby was delivered at the container hospital, an event that was viewed as a sign of good luck.

However, Show Chwan could not continue indefinitely to operate from a cluster of containers.

The question of whether the main structure of the damaged hospital building could be repaired came up. After inspections and assessments by structural and civil engineers and geologists, it was determined that the hospital building could be restored.

Work to reinforce the building proceeded smoothly. As each section or floor was repaired, it was opened for service. The restoration project was completed in July 2000 and the hospital was reopened on the 26th of that month.

"We have made it," Hsieh and his staff exclaimed proudly at the opening ceremony.

Looking back, Hsieh said, the 921 earthquake underscored the need to make hospitals disaster proof.

"Major emergencies and disasters can be compounded if health facilities fail... When a hospital collapses or its functions are disrupted, lives that depend on emergency care can be lost," he said.

In the restoration of the hospital, Hsieh said, high-end materials that can absorb seismic shocks were used to reduce the risk of sudden collapse in the future.

In addition, the hospital now has well-maintained power and water resources and has prioritized disaster emergency training for its medical and paramedical staff, he said.

The hospital has also made efforts to develop a communication network with other healthcare providers in the area so that a strong support system is in place in the event of a disaster, Hsieh went on.

"Life is fleeting and ephemeral. One has to do things that make one happy in retrospect," he noted.

 
 
 
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