Doctor races against time to save quake victims

Doctor races against time to save quake victims

Dr. Vanek is shipping sleeping bags and other emergency items. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.

UCLA neurologist Zeba Vanek is raising money, mobilizing supplies to aid Pakistani victims.

Ajay Singh's article originally appeared in UCLA Today on Nov. 22, 2005.

In one of the best-known scenes from the epic film "Gone With the Wind," the screen fills with the sight of countless dead and wounded soldiers from the Confederate South. For years, Zeba Vanek, an assistant clinical professor of neurology, thought of that haunting sight as a tragic symbol of war's unimaginable suffering.

These days, the same scene reminds Vanek of the Oct. 8 earthquake that rocked Pakistan and India, devastating one of the world's remotest and poorest regions.

Among the 86,000 people currently estimated to have died were four members of a family Vanek knew in Pakistan, her ancestral homeland, and numerous relatives of friends.

"This is probably one of the biggest disasters in the history of humanity — bigger than Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami," said the neurologist, taking a break from her clinical work at the Veteran's Hospital in Westwood last week. "Four million people are homeless — 2 million of them are thought to be children, many of them orphans."

As the death toll has continued to rise because of woefully inadequate medical care and poor rehabilitation, Vanek and her Los Angeles-based Pakistani friends have launched a remarkable campaign to raise funds and increase public awareness about the calamity through vigils.

The response has been overwhelming. The day after the quake, said Vanek, she got a call from John Menkes, a renowned professor emeritus of pediatric neurology, who donated $1,000 to HOAP International, a Pakistan-based NGO aiding quake victims. Recently, a thoracic surgeon who heard Vanek lecture in Hollywood on Parkinson's disease donated $3,500.

So far, Vanek and her friends have helped raise some $50,000 from UCLA faculty, staff, students and the Los Angeles community.

To provide quake victims with some shelter, Vanek's group procured some 5,000 tents as well as cooking stoves and medicines from the Boy Scouts of America.

Getting the tents wasn't easy. They were dripping wet, lying in a warehouse in Santa Clarita. So on Nov. 5, Vanek, along with some 200 volunteers — mostly faculty, staff and students from UCLA and UC Irvine — spent all day unwrapping the tents and then leaving them in the sun to dry. The following day, they loaded the tents into a container that was dispatched on a cargo vessel to Pakistan.

To protect the homeless from the harsh Himalayan winter in some 15,000 villages, sleeping bags are also essential. One of Vanek's friends — the brother-in-law of Asad Abidi, a professor of electrical engineering — ordered 10,000 waterproof sleeping bags from China for as low as $5 each, using the $50,000 raised in charity. Each sleeping bag is large enough to accommodate three people in Arctic conditions, and "if they survive the winter, they can use it as a mattress," Vanek said.

"People are dying as we speak," Vanek said, and not just because of the severe shortage of medical aid. She estimates there are just a few days left before snow arrives in the mountainous region.

"The task is so big that we need a combined global effort," said Vanek, adding: "We're racing against time."

To contribute to the South Asian earthquake relief effort, call Vanek at (310)592-9149 or e-mail her at

Published: Monday, November 28, 2005