03 March 2011

Six days in Malta

I have just returned from six days in Malta. It would be a great spot to vacation, but I was there strictly for work. The U.S. Department of State Office of Medical Services, known in governmentese as MED, sent a psychiatrist and me to support Americans being evacuated out of Libya. Before they could be evacuated to Malta, 300 of these evacuees spent two harrowing days aboard a ferry anchored in the port of Tripoli, while they waited for seas calm enough to travel. This group included children, pregnant women and elderly people, all of whom were at higher risk for such travel. They slept on the floor three nights, ate mostly snack food and had no shower facilities.

On the third day, they were finally cleared to travel to Malta and then motored through high seas and rough water. Most were seasick and exhausted when they, at last, arrived. Still, considering that experience and all they went through prior to reporting to the ferry, when tensions in Tripoli were high and the situation was increasingly dangerous, they all looked remarkably good.

I believe the emotional trauma was the worst of the suffering. People left their homes and nearly everything else behind, perhaps never to see them again. They left Libyan friends and colleagues to an uncertain future. They left beloved pets that were not allowed to travel on the ferry. I heard of at least one family that witnessed people being shot in the street. Their children were clearly distressed. The psychological healing will take some time.

Fortunately, there were no serious illnesses or injuries on the vessel. The physical complaints were mostly the effects of exhaustion, seasickness and the benign, nonspecific physical symptoms that follow the decrease of stress hormones after they have been elevated for an extended period of time.

I have worked through crisis situations before, but never an evacuation. I was extremely impressed with its planning and execution. The staff of the American embassy in Malta really did their homework, and I don’t believe they left a single contingency unexplored. In addition, the Maltese government provided relief workers, ambulances and supplies, and the Maltese Red Cross provided personnel and equipment for escort. The whole episode was a finely tuned operation that went off without a hitch, which was very encouraging since the American-chartered vessel was the first to arrive. Other followed that evening and in succeeding days.

PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to Malta Douglas W. Kmeic welcomes evacuees from Libya as they exit the ferry. Michael Avina, photographer.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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