Nargis Hero Wins Florence Nightingale Medal

By Thu Zar 21 May 2015

RANGOON — Though the sky was gloomy, life on Haigyi Island that morning was as calm and still as it was on any other day. Some villagers were bunkering down after a storm warning announced by the weather bureau, but most seemed undaunted, carrying on their daily lives as normal.

As it approached noon, the winds picked up suddenly and violently, and soon a fierce gale was blowing from the sea. The clouds thickened and the sky darkened to blackness, while the rains became a deluge and the tide began to swell and overrun the shore.

No one who lived through it will ever forget the fateful day in May 2008, when Haigyi Island was all but leveled by Cyclone Nargis. Sitting at the southwestern tip of Irrawaddy Division, Haigyi was the closest landmass to the eye of a storm which eventually claimed the lives of up to 140,000 people.

Sa Naing Naing Tun, then serving as a senior nurse at island’s 16-bed hospital, thought at the time that it was the last day of his life.

“We all thought we were about to die, he said. “We didn’t think we could escape.”

There were 70 people in the ward when the cyclone hit, two mothers who had just given birth, along with 20 other patients, their families and hospital staff. As they bunkered down, the building was struck by uprooted trees and corrugated iron sheets that had blown off the roofs of nearby houses.

“The water level reached up to our breast,” he recalled. “It flooded in very quickly. We let people stand on the beds, but there were too many of us. I thought we would be inundated and so we asked the vulnerable patients to climb up to the beams on the roof.”

The storm continued to thrash the island until 6pm, when the tide began to recede. As the situation in the ward calmed, Sa Naing Naing Tun’s mind went the two women that gave birth that morning.

“I asked them about their babies and the mothers told me they had almost been suffocated by the water. I was quite worried. I took the babies and found that they had stopped breathing—I could hear the faint heartbeat of one while another one’s heart had stopped. I gave as treatment as much as I could to the baby who had more chances of survival. I tried to warm his cold body up and after some time, he returned to normal…then I treated the second baby as much as I could. But the baby did not respond at all and did not breathe. So, I gave up, and when I was about to turn away from him, he hooked his fingers around mine.”

The ordeal was by no means over. While the storm hit, another woman had gone into labor on the other side of Hatgyi Island. With the expectant mother and her husband unable to reach the hospital, it fell to the nurse to brave the chaos of the storm’s aftermath, climbing through ruined homes and debris to reach the woman and assist in the delivery.

“I didn’t even have the gloves to deliver the child,” he said. “It was an emergency and it took almost an hour to get to the patient’s house. Her house was almost collapsing…when I asked them if they had anything to cut the placenta, they gave me a rusty knife. Then I had to tear off my longyi to tie the umbilical cord.”

The next morning, he took necessary medicines from hospital and came to check the mother and the baby. Both of them were healthy.

Last week, Sa Naing Naing Tun received long overdue recognition for his courageous actions in during the Nargis disaster. With the encouragement of the Myanmar Nurse and Midwife Association, earlier this year he applied for the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest honor for nurses presented by the International Committee of the Red Cross. On May 12, International Nurses Day, he was announced as a recipient of the award, along with 35 other nurses from 18 countries.

First awarded in 1912, Sa Naing Naing Tun is only the fourth Burmese national to have received a Florence Nightingale Medal. Army nurse Col Khin Ohn Mya was awarded the medal in 1963 for her devotion to World War II refugees, An Yaw Nan was honored in 1993 for her devotion to injured soldiers and civilians in Shan State, and Thein Yi was recognized in 2001 for saving an 8-year-old child from a burning home in Sagaing Division.