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Resilience Reflection #25: From Despair to Hope

In this week's issue of Resilience ReflectionsDerya Demirtas shares her experience of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria one year ago and how her initial feeling of helplessness turned into a sense of hope that research, including her own, is having a growing impact on many aspects of emergency response. 

In this regular series by the Resilience@UT and 4TU Resilience, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

From Despair to Hope: A Reflection on Resilience and Impact

When I agreed to write this week’s reflection on resilience, I didn’t anticipate the emotional weight involved. As I sit down to write, I find myself transported back to the week of February 6th, 2023...

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Turkey-Syria earthquake, a catastrophe that claimed 60,000 lives and left 130,000 injured. Millions were displaced, including my parents. While my loved ones survived, the devastation in my hometown of Malatya and its neighbouring cities is indescribable.

Coincidentally, I had a flight booked to Malatya, scheduled just three days after the earthquake struck. I didn’t go. My parents were forced to evacuate their apartment following a second earthquake on February 6th and sought refuge in their very basic farmhouse outside the city. They had no heating, and the frozen pipes meant no access to water. Finding food and drinkable water was tough, and my visit would have just added another mouth to feed. It wasn't until August that I was able to travel to Malatya to help them move to a rented apartment. Witnessing my parents lose the home and business they had worked tirelessly for, and witnessing them rebuild their lives in their 70s, was difficult.

Seeking Purpose

I couldn’t travel home, and I couldn’t continue my life as usual either. A deep sense of hopelessness overwhelmed me. My work felt meaningless.

I am a mathematician/engineer specialising in developing mathematical models and machine learning algorithms for estimating demand and optimizing resource allocation in emergencies. My field operations research is well-known for contributing to efficient and resilient supply chains. Logistics is what our academic community is known for. Yet, during the week of the earthquake, it all felt hollow.

Thanks to logistics and operations research, you can receive a package the next day and airlines can organize thousands of flights, but what good is this if we cannot use that knowledge to respond quickly in an emergency? Thousands died in Turkey not from direct injury but from freezing to death due to delayed response. It's not that Turkey lacks the expertise—many distinguished disaster response researchers originate from the country. Their work on emergency management (mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery) is impressive but sadly the practical application of this work is lacking. This made me question my own research, and indeed the whole field.

Striving for impact

However, a glimmer of hope emerged two weeks later during a meeting with longstanding collaborators from HartslagNu, a citizen response system in the Netherlands that mobilizes volunteers during cardiac arrests (boasting a network of 250,000 volunteers!). Joined by an emergency anesthesiologist from UMC Amsterdam, we discussed strategies to enhance the citizen response system and optimize automated external defibrillator (AED) placement. This meeting served as a small reminder of the tangible impact our research has had. In 2020, HartslagNu adapted its alert strategy based on our findings, leading to improved volunteer response in rural areas. By 2023, volunteers from Zaandam utilized our models to identify regions with high risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest but insufficient defibrillators (AED) coverage, resulting in additional AEDs in those areas.

These efforts may seem small in the grand scheme, but they instil in me a sense of hope.  As we increasingly rely on volunteer citizens to bolster emergency response efforts, the challenge lies in integrating their contributions alongside professional forces. This dynamic adds a layer of complexity to an already intricate system, presenting both challenges and opportunities for research.

I don’t know whether the research in emergency management will ever benefit my homeland. Likewise, I cannot guarantee that my work will have a tangible impact on my people. Nonetheless, I firmly believe in advancing scientific knowledge and striving to translate it into practical applications. If my research contributes to improving the utilisation of volunteers, enhancing the effectiveness of emergency resources, or reducing the response time to the next cardiac arrest or disaster—and if even one life is saved as a result—wouldn't that make it all worthwhile?

About the author

Derya Demirtas is an associate professor in the Center for Healthcare Operations Improvement & Research (CHOIR) at the University of Twente. Her research focuses on operations, optimization and data analytics, location theory and their applications to healthcare, emergency response, and public services.

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