Teenage amputee too traumatised to remember

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The Independent Online

He lies in a hospital bed, a boy with a leg bandaged where his foot should have been. Nobody knows who he is, or where he comes from.

He was brought here with his foot crushed beyond repair. The doctors had to cut it off. His mind has gone too, probably recently, say the doctors. He cannot say who he is.

He is about 14. Nobody knows how to contact his parents. When he arrived he was able to give an address, but when the hospital contacted it, nobody there had heard of him. Nobody knows if the name he gave then is any more accurate, but he said he is G Murthi.

A nurse tries to rearrange the blanket to make him comfortable, but he cries at any pressure. "The blood vessels were crushed beyond repair," says Professor Navaneetham, who operated. "There was no blood supply. The bone was protruding into the open air. We could not save his foot." They printed a photograph of him in the local newspaper but nobody has come forward. Professor Navaneetham says the hospital was told he was working as a manual labourer in Velankani, on the coast, when the wave struck. He will not work as a labourer again.

And before he finds his new life, he must remember who he is. The doctors say if his confusion is psychological, his mind could return in time. "We thought it was a head injury, but X-rays and a CT scan show nothing," Professor Navaneetham says.

In the women's ward, Thilagavati approaches slowly. Her left hand has been amputated, and the stump is swaddled in bandages. She looks calm at first, and makes as if she is about to speak. Then she breaks down and cries, cries her heart out. She is not weeping for her hand. Her husband and three children died. "We were trying to escape. I was holding my three children with my hand. But the building fell down on my hand and I could not hold on to my children, so I lost my children."

All the patients were evacuated to this teaching hospital from Nagapattinam, the worst-affected district in mainland India. The main hospital there took the full brunt. Doctors had to evacuate 400 patients. Now they are trying to clean up at Nagapattinam. The courtyards are ankle-deep in thick, foul-smelling mud. Tide-marks in the wards show the water level was shoulder-high. Acrid smoke drifts by; they are burning contaminated waste.

But a few buildings escaped the water. Dr S Rajendran shows how the eye-patients' ward has been converted into cramped accommodation for those with minor injuries.

In the ear, nose and throat ward, Kousaliya is sitting next to a tiny bundle swathed in a blanket, her newborn baby. Maternity was washed out, so ENT has been turned into a labour room. Two more women have arrived with labour pains. Nurses are busy.

The newborn baby - he does not have a name yet - lies quietly by his young mother's side. He blinks at the destroyed world around him. Amid the dead, the grieving and the suffering, his life is beginning.