Nafeesa Khattak, speaks with a patient

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–The X-rays were painful to look at. The supple contour of the human spine displayed on the film Dr. Abid Qureshi held up was dramatically broken in the middle. The vertebrae once sinuously linked together were disjointed, like the geography of a fault line where two great tectonic plates overlap and grind.

“Ninety percent of the patients I have seen are girls and women. Most are paraplegics. And 90 percent of these, the fractures are in the same place, at the junction of the thoracic and the lumbar,” said Qureshi, an orthopedic spine and trauma surgeon. “When the roofs started falling, they crouched and the stones and wood beams fell on their backs. They were trying to protect their heads.”

Qureshi, 38, who left his California practice to volunteer in Pakistan, said the woman whose X-ray he held would never walk because her spinal cord had been severed in the Oct. 8 Asian earthquake. Now, more than a month later inside the General Military Hospital in Rawalpindi, he was about to reconnect her spine surgically with screws and rods. The operation will help her recovery, but there are no guarantees.

There are hundreds of patients in Pakistan’s capital and neighboring Rawalpindi with spinal injuries. Most of them are women, because when the quake hit they were inside their mud-brick homes carrying out this society’s traditional duties: cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

The number of severely injured has topped 69,000 people. The temblor, which registered at 7.6 on the Richter scale, claimed the lives of more than 87,000 people, almost the same number of persons who live in Miami Beach, Fla. More than 3.3 million people who lived in the Himalayan areas of Kashmir and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province are homeless.

Injured Women in a Cultural Quandary

Women with spinal injuries are now in a quandary because they must be cared for around the clock. They have not only lost their ability to walk, but many cannot control their bladders or their bowels.

They come from religiously conservative villages and cities, where a tablecloth-sized headscarf is a must and showing skin to a person of the opposite sex is strictly taboo, even dangerous. But hospitals, with their resources overstretched, have been forced to use male medical staffers to tend to all patients in wards where men and women have been mixed because of the lack of space.

A burned-out movie theater in Islamabad has become for a number of these women a clean and safe refuge. The owner of the Melody Cinema, Attique Khattak, 30, said that when his 50-year-old mother, Nafeesa Khattak, and her friend, Dr. Rubeina Fareed, went to the hospitals to see what they could do to help women they were shocked into action.

Nafeesa Khattak said at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences she found women with spinal injuries who were taking drastic steps to keep their dignity.

“Private parts are very sacred in our country,” Nafeesa Khattak said. “These women would not eat properly in the hospital so they would not pass stool, so they would not be exposed. They would not even talk to the doctor about the wounds in their private areas or near their thighs.”

Her son, Attique Khattak, said, “I was thinking socks and shirts and blankets. I sent 17 trucks to the affected areas. But my mother called me and said, ‘We have decided we need to help these women. We can do it at the Melody.’ It was my mother’s order. I had to do it.”

Attique Khattak organized his friends to renovate the interior of his 700-seat cinema, which has not shown a movie since “The Incredible Hulk” in October 2003, when a group of religious fanatics torched the theater in the fervor following a local mullah’s funeral.

Theater Transformed Into Hospital

With money from his friends and family, Attique Khattak and his mother were able to clean out and renovate two floors of concessionary areas, building new walls, installing new ceilings and laying down newly tiled floors over a couple of days. A kitchen was built where teens once bought popcorn. The bathrooms now have shower stalls with stools, and the walls are bright and white.

There are 60 beds with plastic linings, pillows, linen and blankets that smell freshly laundered. Each bed has a bedpan and a bag of essentials, including a bar of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a hairbrush, towels and socks.

The Khattaks received their first 10 female spinal injury patients on Oct. 22. All 60 beds are taken by patients who have undergone surgery and are in recovery. The Khattaks said some of the patients on the lower floor will be able to walk again. None of the women on the upper floor will be so lucky. The Khattaks are looking for ways to raise money to renovate the seating areas to create a space for 50 more beds.

What they have provided so far is peace of mind, said Fatla Tariq, 20. She said she had just finished breastfeeding her baby and was handing her son to her husband when the earthquake hit their village 35 kilometers outside of Muzaffarabad, the earthquake’s epicenter. When she arrived at the Melody Cinema she could not walk, suffered from amnesia and had not had a bowel movement for almost two weeks. She said she started eating when she arrived.

“I wanted to leave the hospital. I had a catheter. I felt ashamed. There were men attendants there. They were changing my urine bag. I did not feel comfortable,” Tariq said. “It was very crowded. There were so many men coming and going all the time. Here, men can only come at a certain time.”

Men’s Visits Are Limited

The Melody Cinema does not bar men completely. Twice each day for an hour, male relatives are allowed in to visit the women. All of the women’s needs are provided for by female family members, female attendants and nurses. Both male and female doctors come to check on the patients’ progress. Security is provided by two male police officers at the door and one female officer on each floor.

Nafeesa Khattak and her son have big plans for the Melody Cinema, if they can find the funding. They know that fixing the broken bones will not repair the lives of the women in their care. With the help of family members and friends they hope to hire on physiotherapists, psychologists and vocational trainers, who can teach these women a skill they can use to earn money.

The Khattaks and Qureshi said many of these women with spinal injuries will never be taken as a wife or back into their families because they will not be able to work in the home or on the farm and may not be able to care for children. They fear they may come to be seen as an unwanted burden on their families, who survive on subsistence farming.

“We will teach them how to insert their own catheters. We will put them into a routine so they will be independent,” Nafeesa Khattak said. “We have asked teachers to come and teach them sewing and weaving, making jams, or how to dry flowers and arrange them, anything that can fetch money.”

But privately, Qureshi had doubts. “This society is cruel. They will be out on the streets unless they can get a skill and become independent,” he said. “A young woman who does not walk, who has no control over her bladder, has no real chance in this society. I hope to God the world will not forget them.”

Laura J. Winter is originally from Sierra Madre, Calif., and has recently moved to London. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Daily News and has been filing stories from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for four years.

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For more information:

Pakistan Journalist Rushes to Ease Quake’s Toll:

United Nations South Asia Earthquake Information:

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