Helping to Rebuild the Spirits of the Tsunami Survivors

Posted by AC Team

An American doctor who survives the Tsunami disaster in Thailand returns to bring the healing power of laughter to help rebuild the spirits of the survivors.


200,000 souls perished. "I was lucky, I survived," Dr. Daniel C. Susott, wrote to me. Daniel Susott MD, my good friend and fellow social activists story gives us a unique perspective from one who not only survived the catastrophe but one who has returned to make a huge positive difference.

Daniel Susott is not your typical medical doctor. He's an extraordinary adventurer with a lust for life and an insatiable appetite to conquer new worlds as he tirelessly strives to elevate suffering wherever there's a need. I know his remarkable work first hand since we have been collaborating on various humanitarian programs all over the world: summer camps for at risk teens in the USA, providing support for orphans and women in Cambodia, and now on the biggest disaster, the tsunami (

Daniel was born in Texas and raised in Virginia and Hawaii. He earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, his M.D. from the John C. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, and his M.P.H. from the University of Hawaii School of Public Health.

This physician/philanthropist/actor/operatic tenor/dancer/author, first became involved with the plight of the Cambodian people when he served as Medical Director for the United Nations Border Relief Operations (UNBRO) in the refugee camps along the border of Thailand and Cambodia following the fall of the Pol Pot regime. His incredible book, "Years of Horror, Days of Hope: Responding to the Cambodian Refuge Crisis," ( details those times with eye-opening awareness.

He coordinated health care in Thailand's refugee camps during the height of the refugee crisis in 1979-1982. And he consulted on AIDS-treatment programs for New York City's public hospitals. Furthermore, Dr. Susott created the World Family Foundation to provide health and educational opportunities for children, literacy training for women, and to find families for waiting orphans in Cambodia and other countries. Being tireless, Daniel also was a founding board member of the Rainforest Alliance and the Panacocha Foundation, seeking to protect rainforests in the Amazon and worldwide.

Currently, he is the Medical Director for the Airline Ambassadors International, active in the Threshold Foundation, and works in Urgent Care/Docs on Duty in Carmel, California. He also speaks ten languages and will do anything for a laugh! I joke with him that he is so zany because otherwise the suffering that he has witnessed in his work will crush anyone with a heart as big as his.

This past December, Dr. Susott and friends headed to Thailand for a scuba diving holiday. As usual, he was exactly where he was most needed. What happened next was a mind-boggling chain of events, I have asked him to give us his first hand account:

I was snorkeling far from shore when we experienced a massive current which swept our party quickly away from the boat. Just as we rescued the last person, the current reversed itself. We finally made it back at sunset to the beach we had left at 8:00 a.m. The wave had struck two hours later and the destruction at the beach was total. The office where we had checked our e-mail that morning was now without walls, the computers piled in a heap in the back yard. People died there.

The yacht we had been sleeping on for three days had been demasted, rolling over and bouncing seven times off the bay's floor. Luckily, its motor was intact, and captain Horst and his two crew had survived, clinging to the deck. We moored in the safety of deep water, and with the help of two kind Danish sailors who had spent the day ferrying survivors to safety from a tiny island. I placed a call to Nancy Rivard, founder of the Airline Ambassadors International. She set to work creating an unprecedented convoy of commercial airlines to deliver 350 pallets of critically needed aid to the area. As AAI's new Medical Director, I was pleased we could mobilize such aid so quickly.

Hearing on the ship's radio of the huge death toll in Sri Lanka and the President's plea for international assistance, I went to Sri Lanka to help. One motivation for going was to see my two old friends, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, Nobel nominees both.

Now 87, Sir Arthur 60 years ago proposed the use of rockets developed for war to launch satellites that would remain stationary over the Earth, thus birthing the era of Satellite Telecommunications. In his book, "Childhood's End," published in 1953, he describes a tsunami hitting Sri Lanka! "...The day was quite and peaceful. A blazing sun hung halfway down the sky...." Sir Arthur came to Sri Lanka years ago because he loves scuba diving. His eco-business, Scuba Safaris, was wiped out by the tsunami.

As soon as I arrived in Sri Lanka, I saw Sir Arthur and checked in with Dr. Ariyaratne, founder of the Sarvodaya movement. "Ari" is called "the Gandhi of Sri Lanka." He taught me meditation in my tree house in Hawaii years back. Sarvodaya is active in sustainable development all over Sri Lanka--in more than 15,000 villages-- and coordinated the most effective early and ongoing response to this disaster.

Immediately, we drove for ten hours across the island to the city of Batticaloa. The areas hardest hit by the tsunami were the strongholds of the Tamil separatists who have been engaged in a war with the Sri Lankan government for 20 years. Some areas of the country were completely cut off from the supply of aid which had begun to flow in, bridges and roads washed away. As in Aceh, the separatist province of Indonesia, it seemed that Mother Nature was finishing the job started by the government and years of civil war.

Amid the devastation were people picking through the ruins of their homes, dazed and forlorn. There were thousands of people in temporary camps--schools, temples, mosques. Above all, I remember a little girl, one of countless children who hadn't spoken since they were orphaned by the wave. Or the woman who lost three of her children to the wave as she struggled to save them--and then had her remaining child stolen in the camp. "Never has the fruit been closer to the ground," said one child trafficker.

The rebuilding of people's lives will take years, generations. Beyond the physical needs, the emotional and psychological healing of the people is the main concern. What can one do, faced with the enormity of a disaster like the recent tsunami?

"Tsunami Salami!" That's Dr. Patch Adams' name for our late March visit to Sri Lanka, clowning our way through refugee camps, schools, orphanages and communities so severely impacted by the killer wave. Patch says, "We want to change the world--not through money or power but through love and generosity!" Patch's international team of 30 clowns includes eleven North American teenagers "who would rather spend their Spring Break helping others than partying! We want to teach American teenagers the joy of giving!"

Giving what? "Love and fun--to rebuild the spirits of people who have been traumatized, to reconnect the traumatized people to life!" He said, "It won't be the kind of invasion the United States has become famous for; it will be a love invasion. We'll be kissin' and huggin' and lovin' 'em!"

I got my own start in comedy in refugee camps and orphanages in Southeast Asia. I was heading to Thailand in late 1979 after finishing my medical internship. I had always wanted to be a "jungle doctor." I went to heal the suffering, disease and misery. But I stayed for the beauty and joy and the hope. And the laughter! I learned that if you can't FEED all the people in the camp/orphanage, you can BREAKDANCE for them! Give them happy memories to replace the rest.

The stories I heard in the Cambodian refugee camps moved me to tears and got me "hooked" on the Cambodian saga. I needed to see through, to experience the tales of triumph which turned survivors into teachers and healers. So when it was possible to venture inside Cambodia, in 1990 I went--getting orphans adopted and supporting projects which empowered families and communities. When I'd visit the orphanages, the children would say, "Dance for us, Uncle!" And I did. And I played my accordion. I did what I could to bring some light into the darker corners. I was in Cambodia for most of the 1990's and I still try to keep people and a program supported there. The healing power of laughter is needed in all the regions affected by the tsunami.

As for Sir Arthur's tsunami in 1953? "Though the damage in the low-lying...had been severe, there had been no loss of life. The seismographs had been able to give only 15 minutes warning, but that had been enough to get everyone above the danger line."

Almost three months after the tsunami struck, it's early April now as I write this, and aid is still not reaching some areas most in need. Corruption, inefficiency, politics and difficult logistics are keeping the aid bottlenecked in Colombo, to the frustration of those trying to help. Aid passed through grassroots organizations such as Sarvodaya has the most chance of reaching its destination.

I NEVER INTENDED to make a life's work out of Cambodia nor did I expect to have a career in tsunami relief. I just kind of...fell into it! Or rather, got sucked into a radical current and thrust still breathing into the emergency, happy to be alive and blessed to be able to serve.

If you wish to support Dr. Daniel Susott's efforts and others dedicated to this cause, please visit as well as Airline Ambassadors International at

Marilyn Tam is an influential corporate leader, speaker, consultant, author, philanthropist and social activist.

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