Arizona Daily Wildcat
Marti Simpson to get award from Red Cross for helping earthquake, flood victims
Making a difference in at least one person's life matters.
That is what UMC nurse practitioner Marti Simpson realized after traveling around the world to provide medical assistance to natural disaster survivors.
Simpson, who took a year away from her work at University Medical Center, returned from her last destination - El Salvador - on Feb. 13, the same day that a 6.6-magnitude earthquake shook the country.
She said she still feels guilty about leaving the earthquake's victims, but she had to return to her work at the UMC's cardiology department.
Simpson returned with stories to tell, faces to describe and questions to ask, such as who provides medication to the people now that she left behind.
Her leg, which was broken when the El Salvador earthquake struck, is wrapped in a cast, but that injury is nothing compared to what she saw over the past two years.
It was a simple question that began Marti's journey.
"Who took care of them?" Simpson said she wondered about earthquake or flood victims that appeared and vanished in news clips.
To find an answer, she began volunteering for Northwest Medical Teams, a Portland, Ore.,-based non-profit organization that sends medical teams to assist people in crises worldwide, in 1999.
Her first destination was war-torn Albania in the summer of 1999.
"This was the first time I saw people living in tents," she said about the Kosovo refugees.
In the northwestern town of Skodra, where Simpson stayed for a month, about 7,000 people lived in an abandoned factory. Because they lived closely with one another and drank contaminated water, they had diseases like pneumonia, which could easily kill if not treated, she said. People also had common diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Simpson, along with other relief workers, distributed free medication. But that wasn't easy, since refugees often didn't know what medication they were supposed to be on because they left their homes in a hurry, she said.
"The doctor said my blood pressure was high and I was taking some medicine," Simpson said as she described what kind of questions her patients came to her with. "So we didn't know exactly, and it's not like they came with a prescription and said, 'This is the drug I need.'"
"So we would work with them to find a good drug that was available and that they could take," she added.
Simpson remembers being struck with the fact that all the people she saw on television were real, she said, when she treated a two-year-old child who had been severely burned after playing with boiling water her mother used for cooking. After treating the child, she ran out of the camp site and burst into tears, wondering if what she did really changed the world.
"When you talk about a million people being displaced, this is a huge number, and it is a huge crowd," she said. "But when you go there and meet them individually, they are human beings.
"They got names, they got stories, their kids are cute, their hearts have been broken, they lost people they love. They are like me," she said. "I would look at them and think, these could be my neighbors."
Simpson kept this in mind when she headed to her next destination - Turkey.
A 7.6-magnitude earthquake had already killed 17,000 people, and she was supposed to go there to provide medication to survivors, who lived in plastic tents.
Four days after her arrival in the northwest town of Duzce in October 1999, the second devastating earthquake hit the country, killing thousands more and leaving hundreds homeless.
Another part of Simpson's work in Turkey was to open up a clinic and provide basic services. Because Turkish women were intimidated at first to come to her clinic, she had to find ways to attract them, she said.
"You just don't think of a clinic as like a place where you just want to go," she said. "But once they knew me and my clinic, that changed."
She learned how to wear traditional scarves from the local women and invited the children to draw pictures on the clinic's walls.
"The mothers would come and peer into the windows, stand on their tiptoes and point to the pictures," she said. "It made women come to the clinic."
Her next destination - Mozambique - had seen a flood that killed about 1,000 people.
Simpson went to a town called Chokwe, where the roads were closed and about 100,000 people had left their homes to live in a camp. Simpson's team couldn't offer help until the roads were cleared, she said.
But when the people started returning their homes, they would drink from contaminated water, and eventually there was a cholera outbreak. Simpson opened a mobile clinic and distributed medical help.
"This was the first time I saw severe malnutrition," she said. "Some of the villages we went to, people were scared of us because they never saw white people before."
She remembers being in a town church, listening to people singing in Portuguese and seeing birds flying in and out of the broken windows. Up on the wall, she said, a statue of the Virgin Mary hung just above the flood line.
That day, she realized that even though many people needed her help, she could start helping one person, one day at a time.
"I can't make a difference in a million lives, but I can make a difference in 20 or 30 today, and 20 or 30 tomorrow."
Simpson also stayed three months in Ethiopia before she went to El Salvador in January.
About 30 minutes before her return flight to Tucson, Simpson was holding her ticket at El Salvador's international airport when the second massive earthquake struck.
First the building shook, then the ceiling fell down and windows exploded toward her. As she escaped from the pieces of glass, she noticed the floor separating, and as one side came up, her leg was coming down, she said.
"That's when I thought I was going to die," she said. "It was peaceful."
For her efforts, Simpson will receive the "Real Hero" award from the Red Cross on May 17.
Her co-workers are glad to have her back after the long absence, said Lawton Snyder, diagnostic director for rehabilitation services in UMC.
With UMC's nurse shortage, approving Simpson's leave was hard, Snyder said. But Simpson was devoted to the cause, and if he wouldn't approve, she would quit her job, he said.
"The circumstances were pretty special in this case," he said.
"But when we look back over what she has done, all the people she helped, it was worthwhile," Snyder added. "I don't think you would find a lot of people who would do that without getting paid and putting themselves at risk."