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Twelve Days in Iran

Twelve Days in IranPart of an elite medical unit deployed to aid victims of the recent earthquake in Iran, Tufts’ Geoff Bartlett and his teammates were the first humanitarian mission sent to the country in 23years. Bam, Iran.

Boston [02.09.04] Geoff Bartlett was home for the holidays in Vermont when he got the call. "They said ‘Get back to Boston,'" Bartlett told Tufts E-News. "'You're going to Iran.'" A technical service specialist in Tufts' Department of Public Safety, Bartlett is a member of Boston's International Medical Surgical Response Team - one of just three highly specialized units in the U.S. called upon when disasters devastate local medical resources. So Bartlett quickly ditched his plans, packed his bags and prepared to head to Iran - the scene of one of the most devastating earthquakes in more than 27 years.

Within twenty-four hours, Bartlett and his elite 63-member civilian unit - made up of doctors and technical specialists from the Boston area - were aboard an army cargo plane en route to Bam, Iran, where an earthquake had devastated the southeast Iranian city, killing more than 40,300 people The first official U.S. government group sent to Iran since the U.S. Air Force picked up American hostages in 1981, the team had to deal with the unexpected on more than one front.

"What brought us there as individuals had nothing to do with politics, but we were affected by the politics of the situation," said Bartlett, one of three communications officers on the team. "With no embassy in the country for 23 years, a lot of coordination had to be done on the fly."

Met by members of the Iranian army upon their arrival, the team - part of the Department of Homeland Security's 50-team National Disaster Medical System - made their way to the heavily damaged city and began assembling their portable hospital. With just a trailer, a Suburban SUV and as many medical supplies as they could bring, the team set up two tents - one for males, one for females - and quickly began seeing patients alongside medical teams from around the world.

Despite language and cultural barriers ("We took a crash course in Iranian," said Bartlett, "We learned how to say ‘point to where it hurts'") the team was met with acceptance and gratitude.

"People were surprised that we were like them, and they were like us," Bartlett said. "Everyone was nice, even the solders."

Bartlett's unit operated the hospital for four days - treating 727 patients suffering from a wide range of injuries. Because the natural disaster decimated not only the city but two major area hospitals, the team handled everything from acute injuries to routine medical procedures including six childbirths - all healthy.

The team worked tirelessly, putting in 16 to 18 hour days. "Any chance we got, we tried to catch a meal or catch a nap," Bartlett said. It wouldn't have been ideal under normal circumstances, but the team was trained specifically for such demanding situations.

"You are a coiled spring ready to jump into action," Bartlett said about his unit, which was also deployed to aid New York City after the September 11th attacks. "Everyone in the team is like this."

In the face of the massive loss of life and destruction caused by the earthquake, Bartlett said he had no choice but to remain grounded about the role he and his team played in the aftermath.

"You have to accept that you have a job. You are a tiny piece in the puzzle. You do that job the best you can, and that's your contribution," Bartlett said. "You are not the final solution. You are part of the evolution of the response to the event. This is our small piece in trying to fix the problem, and we do the best we can."

Bartlett added," It's a great feeling to take two weeks and do something that the people you are helping appreciate so much."


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