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‘Death Just Beneath You’: Doctor Describes Turkey Earthquake, Ongoing Challenges

Dr. Yusuf Çekmece dug through the rubble to save family, and continues to care for his community in Antakya, Turkey.


Turkey-Syria Earthquake 2023

Dr. Yusuf Çekmece was born in Antakya and is a practicing doctor in is hometown. His office was destroyed during the earthquake in Antakya, Turkey, and now he works in a temporary office inside a portable container. He is pictured here transporting donations from Direct Relief. (Photo by Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

Dr. Yusuf Çekmece, 40, is a family medicine specialist based in Antakya, Turkey, which was hard hit by the devastating earthquakes on February 6, 2023, that killed more than 50,000 people. Dr. Çekmece is part of the Turkish Medical Association, which Direct Relief has supported with grant funding to meet the needs of earthquake zone-impacted doctors, many of whom were displaced by the damage from February’s quake.

Direct Relief has also supported Dr. Çekmece’s work with medical supplies needed at the primary care level, including personal protective equipment, field medic packs and personal care packs with hygiene items for displaced people.

The following is a Q&A with Dr. Çekmece about his experiences during and after the quakes, including what conditions are like in his community now, almost six months later.

The following interview has been edited for clarity. Translation by Dr. Hande Arpat.

Direct Relief: Can you describe what happened when the earthquakes hit? Where were you? What was your first thought when it happened? What was the first thing you did? How did you feel in those first minutes and hours?

Dr. Yusuf Çekmece: I was sleeping at my home, and the earthquake happened at night. Actually, Antakya is used to earthquakes. We’ve always had smaller-scale shakings. So, at first, I thought this one was one of these small-scale quakes, and I started waiting for it to stop, but it didn’t. Forget stopping, it became way stronger. I tried standing up but couldn’t. I lay on the floor, protecting myself near my bed. There is no way to describe the fear at these significant moments. It’s so strange to feel death just beneath you.

Dr. Çekmece’s home after the earthquake, pictured here in May 2023. (Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

How were you involved in rescue operations?

Just after the quakes stopped, I realized that I was alive; I thought of my mother and my siblings. I was more afraid for my loved ones than for myself.

They were living near my apartment, and I started to run to reach them, but the corridors of my building were full of rubble, and then I had to jump over more debris to reach my mother’s apartment. She wasn’t there. Everybody was outside, shouting, screaming. The weather was extremely cold and rainy, and it was so dark at night still. I was running so fast that my mouth became dry like a desert, and I could barely breathe.

Then I saw my mother and my sister hugging each other, crying and running toward me. My mother had bare feet, so I gave my own shoes to her. It was raining so much. My mom and siblings got back to my car, and I parked in a safe place. We tried to reach our beloved ones, but the phones were not working. After a couple of hours, we could …reach everyone except my uncle.

In the morning, I ran to my uncle’s apartment. It was unbelievable. All the buildings had collapsed, and the ones that did not collapse had huge cracks. No buildings were spared, including my uncle’s. It collapsed, and he was under. For hours, we did our best to rescue him. We only had one hammer and one shovel. Finally, after huge efforts, we rescued him by ourselves.

I had to take my family out of the city, but I didn’t have much gasoline, and there was no place left to buy some. Our relatives brought us gas from the neighboring cities, and by the second day, I could evacuate my family. Until I was called back to duty after two months, I could not return to my home province, Hatay.

Dr. Çekmece surveying his destroyed office in Antakya, Turkey. (Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

What were the most difficult aspects for you in the days and weeks after the earthquake?

All of a sudden, our whole life — social lives, professional lives, our memories — tumbled. Without the opportunity of healing from the psychological effects of the earthquake, we had to start rebuilding our lives, and this has been exhausting for all of us… In the first days, I had sleep problems, waking up out of a sudden and feeling like an earthquake was happening again, or while sitting, and when someone moved the couch, I was panicking suddenly. I feel better now, I can say.

A temporary clinic was set up in Antakya, Turkey. Many doctors are practicing out of clinics in portable containers with many buildings deemed structurally unsafe. (Photo by Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

From a medical standpoint, what has been the biggest challenge in giving care to patients?

It’s been more than five months, and we still have lots of challenges related to keeping healthcare services sustainable. From my point of view, the worst challenge is that doctors and other healthcare professionals are earthquake survivors as well, and their living conditions need to be improved. Also, due to the limited transportation options, access to healthcare services is not optimal for people needing healthcare services.

Drs. Yusuf Çekmece and Hande Arpat deliver Direct Relief-provided medical aid to the Hatay Medical Chamber and medical logistical & coordination unit in the destroyed center of Antakya, Turkey. (Photo by Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

I understand your office was destroyed, and you’re working out of a shipping container converted into a medical office. What has that experience been like?

Yes, my primary healthcare facility collapsed. Since the second month after the quake, we have been caring for patients inside the containers which were converted as mobile health units. I can say that it’s at least better to have a place to serve people in need than having no place to serve them.

Earthquake destruction in Antakya, Turkey, on May 4, 2023. (Photo by Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

What would you like people outside of Turkey to know about how people in Antakya are doing today, several months after the earthquakes? Is there anything else you’d like to share about how the earthquakes have changed you or the way you practice medicine in any way?

Five months after the earthquake, people lost everything that they used to have before, like big apartments, expensive carpets, tens of shoes they had, couches, etc. It’s all under the rubble. We now live in containers of 28 m2 (about 300 sq. ft.); restaurants, hairdressers, pharmacies, banks, are all in containers, and we might have to get used to that. Life still goes on despite everything. What makes the people hold on is the solidarity that they feel, both national and international solidarity, which keeps us alive and strong.

People can lose everything in a second: beloved ones, properties, money, but solidarity is the cure for staying alive. Whatever happens, I wish we that we will continue to hold onto each other and keep the solidarity alive globally.

Since February 2023, Direct Relief has shipped more than $82 million in medical aid in response to the earthquake’s impacts in Turkey and Syria, and provided more than $3 million to groups providing medical care in the earthquake zones.

Dr. Çekmece with a field medic pack from Direct Relief. (Photo by Francesca Volpi for Direct Relief)

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