Drop It All and Go


David Systrom, M.D. on Tsunami Relief

By Allison Cogbill '07

In February most Americans turned to television to watch news coverage of the devastating damage left by the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean and, most brutally, Indonesia. David M. Systrom, M.D., '76 only needed to step out of his room to see the effects of the disaster firsthand.

Systrom, a pulmonary care physician and program director at Massachusetts General Hospital, was one of 60 doctors and nurses who acted swiftly to aid tsunami victims. On September 29 he spoke at Colby about his experiences as a volunteer with Project Hope, a program that supplies funds and physicians to 30 countries worldwide.

Joining the relief effort meant saying goodbye to his family, hopping a plane for Singapore, then boarding the U.S. Navy ship Mercy, which would be his floating hospital for weeks. From Singapore, the ship traveled to the northern tip of Sumatra and the city of Banda Aceh, where the tsunami's 65-foot waves had devastated entire neighborhoods. Shortly after arriving, the doctors began to see thousands of patients, flying them from the island to the ship to receive treatment. Tuberculosis was a common condition, and Systrom referred to treating "Tsunami Lung." He spent the month of February as a volunteer and returned for another tour in May.

In anecdotes and photographs, Systrom described for his Colby audience both the devastation and subsequent rebuilding, seasoning his account with humor and hope. He stressed that the support the United States gave Indonesia in response to the tsunami helped international relations significantly and also inspired American citizens to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina. Systrom's message to students: when disaster strikes, don't hesitate. If you can help, "drop it all and go."