“Surviving the 1999 earthquake made me the doctor I am today” – an interview with WHO’s Dr Geroğlu on the response to the 2023 Türkiye earthquakes

“In 1999 a massive earthquake struck Türkiye, causing great destruction and killing more than 17 000 people. At the time I was living in the city of Şile, a district in İstanbul province, 60 kilometres from the epicentre. My family was displaced, and we lived in a tent for about 2 weeks. I had already been planning to work in the medical field but that unfortunate event gave me the extra determination to become a doctor.”

Since then, Dr Berk Geroğlu has gone on to become a general practitioner, specializing in family health, and is now also a National Professional Officer for the WHO Country Office in Türkiye, where he oversees the Refugee Health Programme.

However, the experience of having survived the 1999 earthquake had major psychological effects, which continued for many years to come.

“It took me at least 4 or 5 years to learn not to be terrified whenever there were tremors and to control my fear of another major earthquake occurring,” he said.

As Türkiye is crisscrossed by two major fault lines, the country is particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. Even so, the earthquakes that affected southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria on 6 February 2023 came as a shock to Dr Geroğlu.

“Experts had been warning for some time of another big earthquake in the Istanbul area. I didn’t think that these other provinces would ever suffer an earthquake of such magnitude – even stronger than the 1999 quake. And, tragically, it occurred twice on the same day.”

However, Dr Geroğlu’s own traumatic experience nearly 25 years ago gave him an insight into what needed to happen next.

 “As someone who had already lived through one earthquake, I understood that we needed to act immediately to save lives – and from that very first day we began planning how we could support our partners, especially the Turkish Ministry of Health.”

Dr Geroğlu was deployed to 4 of the most affected areas, where he worked in collaboration with the Ministry to carry out a Rapid Needs and Health Assessment; interviewing provincial health directors and other local experts and officials to assess damage to health facilities and identify the basic needs that required immediate attention in the aftermath of the disaster.

“The top priority had to be emergency and trauma care, which I think was provided very well. Access to primary health-care services is also immensely important. It’s been encouraging to see how hard the Ministry of Health has been working, together with WHO and other health sector partners, to provide continuous quality primary health-care services in areas that have been the most affected.”

One example of these efforts is the deployment of hundreds of ambulances to the affected areas, both to relocate patients from damaged facilities and to distribute medicines to people with chronic conditions living in rural areas. Additionally, temporary health-care facilities have been set up in the tent and container communities created to house the millions of survivors displaced from their homes.

This vital need to provide continuity of care was brought painfully home to Dr Geroğlu by a very poignant episode during his visit to one of the areas damaged by the quakes.

“While I was on deployment, I saw a copy of the results of an electrocardiogram lying amongst the rubble. I wished desperately with all my heart that the person in the report had survived the earthquakes and that they were getting the treatment they needed.”

Despite the often-sad scenes he has witnessed during his visits to health facilities, Dr Geroğlu has been encouraged by the way in which health-care workers in particular have responded to the emergency.

“Health-care staff have been working tirelessly to provide the best possible care, often in difficult and challenging circumstances. The resilience and strength of both the health-care workers and the people who have survived the earthquakes is truly inspiring. This kind of dedication and commitment to the well-being of others is a powerful reminder of the good that exists in the world, even in the most difficult of times.” 

The sense of solidarity shown by a multitude of organizations in responding to this crisis is another thing that he is very keen to highlight.

“The massive response efforts of both the government and nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations, including WHO, and the international emergency medical teams, have been magnificent. Everyone has been working together and helping one another, all determined to provide support to the people of Türkiye where they can.”

Concluding the interview, Dr Geroğlu is optimistic about the future, but emphasizes that there is still a lot of work to be done.

“It is going to take time to recover from such a massive and devastating event, but you can already see marked progress over the last month, particularly in terms of health systems strengthening. Solidarity has proven key to achieving this, but so much more still needs to be done. Although we are now tired, we need to continue to support one another and the people affected by this disaster. I would urge everyone to donate to our response appeal if they can.”


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