Kutztown native Dr. Michael Karch, MD, a Board Certified Orthopaedic Surgeon, was among those to lend his medical expertise to the people of the Philippines in the wake of a typhoon.
Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, causing almost 6,300 casualties and $1.5 billion worth of damage in November.
Mammoth Medical Missions (MMM) arrived 50 hours after landfall to begin its work saving people’s lives.
According to www.mammothmedicalmissions.org, MMM is a non-governmental volunteer organization that provides medical, surgical, dental, and general health-care relief and education to undeserved rural and mountain communities worldwide, as well as rapid emergency medical response and field triage in case of large-scale disaster and/or mass casualty. It is based in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
MMM was formed as a non-profit organization. The founders are David Page, Sierra Bourne, Gillan Bourne, and the current CEO of the organization, Michael Karch. It is comprised of three surgical teams, which include orthopedic, general surgery, and OB/Gyn, according to the website.
“We have been doing humanitarian work in several counties for the last five or 10 years,” said Karch, a Kutztown High School 1987 alumni. “We finally got off our butts and formalized the non-profit organization a year and a half ago.”
According to Karch, this organization has two purposes.
“One is to serve third world countries with regards to humanitarian medical aid on routine missions trips, and go down and do surgery for about a week,” he said. “The second arm of it is acute phase disaster relief. So if something happens somewhere in the world, typhoon, hurricane, earthquake, whatever it is, we’re a strike team that basically gets there fast and early and provides medical and surgical services for the first five days.”
He explains the main goal of the organization is to be quick and efficient.
“To get in there fast, to find a structure of opportunity and turn it into a hospital as quickly as we can and start taking care of patients,” said Karch. According to the doctor, international agencies such as The Red Cross and Doctor’s Without Borders, typically take anywhere between 72 and 100 hours to mobilize and arrive at the place of destruction.
“If you look at the mortality statistics after a mass causality event, most people die within the first 72 hours,” he said. “Our rule is to bridge that gap, and to get there as fast as possible and to set up as fast as possible and do some life saving measures.”
Karch and his team of 15 surgeons were sent on a military aircraft to a town in the Philippines named Tacloban City. However, while they were heading to the country, Karch met a woman who asked him where he was going. He explained to her that his team was headed to the center of the storm in Tacloban City. The woman then told him the center of the storm was actually in a town called Tanauen, which is 15 miles south of Tacloban City. Karch then made the decision to go there instead.
“We were put on a helicopter within five minutes and we became the first domestic international team to be at the center of the storm.”
Karch and his team were dropped off at a beachhead, and had to backpack into the center of the town, which was about three kilometers from where they landed. The team carried all their gear to the town, each person handling about 100 pounds of gear.
He describes the disaster in the Philippines.
“It was horrible,” he said. “Literally every building was knocked down flat. Everything was destroyed. There were hundreds of dead bodies floating in the rivers, and on the beaches and it was the typical reaction you see in any mass casualty, it doesn’t matter if it’s an earthquake or a bombing or a typhoon. It really all kind of looks the same, and there’s just mass destruction.”
According to Karch, once they arrived in the town, there were only two buildings left standing: a church and the town hall. Karch wanted to use the church as his center of location.
“You always want to go to the church,” he said. “The churches are the best buildings in the town, always, anywhere in the world. And that’s because people put the money into the church so it’s well built.”
However once the team got there, they found 200 refugees already living in the church. So instead, they set up in the town hall, which was already mostly destroyed by that point. Half the roof had fallen off and half the building was knocked down. Once they settled down, they began cleaning out the building, getting rid of everything except for the desks, which they used as operating tables.
“Basically, we took what was left of the town hall and we spent the entire night gutting it, so we threw everything out the windows, basically cleaned it out and kept the desks in it,” he said.
They opened up the next morning, about 58 hours after the storm had hit.
“About 300 people lined up, easily, and we did about 56 surgeries the first day.”
The MMM team dealt with many injuries while in the Philippines. According to Karch, most were crush injuries where pieces of buildings fell on top of the civilians or massive, deep lacerations down to the bone, which were obtained when the thin, cheap metal sheets, which made the roofs of buildings, fell on them. There were also a number of coconut injuries, where coconuts were flying at 30 miles per hour and hit someone. They faced quite a number of big limb amputations, such as arm and leg amputations. There were a few stabbings that were the result of some violence that was going on, and the team also delivered 11 babies, two of them being C-sections.
Total, they performed 157 surgeries within four days, with no power, no running water, and very little anesthesia.
“I’ve done quite a number of these so now it doesn’t affect me as much as it did the first time,” said Karch. “But certainly you’re affected when you see hundreds of people dead lying in a field and people without food, starving, and no water and usually in desperate conditions.”
There was no food at all in the city until the fifth day when there was a delivery of rice. According to Karch there was only 120 bags of rice for 50,000 people.
“I think that you can’t let that sway you from what you’re there to do, and what you’re there to do is to work as quickly and sufficiently as possible in trying to save some people,” said Karch. “So you kind of put the blinders on and go, go, go.”
A Learning Experience & How It All Began
Karch said that he always learns something from his experience working in third world countries, treating victims of natural disasters.
“Always you learn stuff,” he said. “I think one of the things that you either learn or gets reinforced quickly is just how lucky we are here. We have running water, we have heat, and we have food. You figure out that we’re very lucky.”
Karch explains that he realized his passion for helping victims of disasters when he had an unusual experience during his seventh year of residency at Georgetown. He was one of the first physicians on site at Ground Zero during Sept. 11.
“That certainly made me very aware of mass casualty, mass casualty events, and things like that, so that’s something I’ve always been interested in,” he said. “I think part of my interest is travel and I’m interested in helping people in third world countries, so it all kind of fits.”
Karch and his team have also dealt with mass casualties in places such as Southeast Asia and Europe, and they go to Mexico or Central America almost every year to do mission humanitarian work.
“We went into medicine to help people, and, unfortunately, at this day in age, you end up doing a lot of other things besides helping people, or get caught up in paperwork,” he said. “So this is one way where it’s just pure medicine.”
The reality of these disasters happening anywhere in the world is important to remember.
“What you learn by going to these places, when they’re in dire need, is it could easily happen to us.”
Karch’s message is loud and clear. “It certainly could happen here,” he said. “Just because it happens in third world countries doesn’t mean that it can’t happen here, so some element of self-preparedness, it’s certainly vital in terms of storing your own food, storing your own water, knowing some basic first aid. Those things are really important and I think a lot of people are complacent about those.”
Michael Karch grew up in Kutztown, and graduated from KAHS in 1987. Karch is now living in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., with his wife and three kids. He works at Mammoth Hospital in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he specializes in sports medicine and orthopedic surgery. His parents, Peter and Lillian, live in Maxatawny Township. His sister Laura (Karch) Gries, of Norwalk, Conn., owns Awakenings Health Institute, a spinal cord rehabilitation facility. His brother, Robert Karch works as a pediatrician in Orlando, Fla., at Nemours Children’s Hospital.
Alyssa Shields is an intern for Berks-Mont Newspapers.