At home in Anchorage, Alaska, nurse Teresa Gray was playing a board game with her children when she heard about the massive earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6.
Although she was more than 5,500 miles away from the disaster, she immediately sprang into action.
Gray’s nonprofit, Mobile Medics International, sends small teams of volunteer medics to humanitarian crises around the world. They are typically on the ground to help within the first few days.
Since 2017, Gray and her group have responded to dozens of disasters, providing free medical care and comfort to more than 30,000 people on five continents. Last year, she was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero for her work.
By February 7, Gray had received permission from Turkey’s Ministry of Health to join the relief efforts, and she flew out early the next morning.
“It’s pretty frantic leading up to a mission,” Gray told CNN as she made final preparations to travel. “We like to get in as soon as possible. So, we’ll be on the ground about 72 hours post-earthquake.”
She packed up supplies to help hundreds of patients, ranging from trauma dressings to antibiotics to acetaminophen. She also prepared the equipment her team would need to be self-sustaining in freezing winter conditions.
“The buildings have been substantially damaged, so you can’t stay inside, it’s too dangerous,” she said. “We’re going to be sleeping in a tent, eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) … This is not going to be a good time.”
Gray also did a video call to touch base with her team, which included a paramedic from London, a doctor from Malaysia, and a nurse anesthetist from Missouri. It was a hectic time for Gray, who says she gets “hyper-focused” before each mission, trying to anticipate problems that might arise.
“We need to find a safe place to be. What if somebody forgot their sleeping bag? We don’t speak the language, so I need to find some interpreters,” she said. “These are the things that run through my mind as I’m getting ready to go to the airport.”
After an epic journey through Seattle and New York, Gray finally landed in Turkey late on February 9 and met up with her team. They made their way to Hatay Province and once there, began doing mobile clinics on the streets of Samandag.
For Gray, the destruction she saw was difficult to comprehend.
“Just the total amount of annihilation … this is probably the most devastation that I have ever seen on any mission that we’ve been on,” she said.
Since so many structures were unstable, the government had mandated that all families must sleep outside in tents. In a cell phone video made on Valentine’s Day, Gray described how she and her group would go street to street, stopping at tents to offer their help. She reported treating people for earthquake injuries, including a girl who had been trapped in the rubble for more than 12 hours, as well as sicknesses like the flu that had been exacerbated by the living conditions.
“Whatever they need us to look at, we will,” she said. “Then we go back, sleep in our car. Get up the next morning and do it again.”
They treated hundreds of people during their 10-day mission, Gray said. One of their interpreters, a high school teacher who they called K.T., became an essential part of their team. In a cell phone video, K.T. told Gray what the people they were helping had said to her.
“They told me, ‘Say them (sic) thank you. It’s really good for us because … we can’t see any doctor, we can’t go any hospital,” K.T. said.
K.T. had also suffered a great deal. Two of her students had been killed in the earthquake, and the school where she taught had been destroyed. She and most of her extended family – a total of 15 people – lost their homes and were forced to take refuge in a greenhouse on their property.
Despite their own hardship, K.T.’s family adopted Gray’s group as their own, Gray said – letting them stay on their property, making them tea and coffee, and sharing meals with them. Their generosity served as another reminder that, even in desperate times, humanity shines through.
On February 19, Gray got back to Alaska. When a 6.3 magnitude aftershock hit Turkey the next day, she immediately reached out to K.T. and others she befriended on her journey to make sure they were all okay. She’s working to send another team of volunteers very soon.
Want to get involved? Check out the Mobile Medics International website and see how to help.