An Alumna's Personal Account as a Typhoon Haiyan Volunteer Doctor

06 Dec 2013 12:20 PM | Mary Rose dela Cruz (Administrator)
By Cynthia Verzosa, MD

Typhoon Haiyan, more popularly known as Yolanda, struck the Philippines on 8 November 2013. As the immense magnitude of the devastation came to light, I felt a growing sense of duty -- to give of myself, personally. I am anophthalmologist. And though I knew that internal medicine specialists, pediatricians, and surgeons would be the ones in great demand, I kept telling myself that I am still a physician capable of practising General Medicine.

So on 11 November, after hearing through the grapevine that our hospital, the Jose R Reyes Memorial Medical Center, would be sending a medical team to the typhoon-hit areas, I spoke to the Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology, Dr Evelyn Morabe, and expressed my eagerness to volunteer as part of the team.

To my surprise only a mere couple of days later, I received instructions and a list of items to pack immediately as I was being deployed the following day, together with an entire medical team. Though excited, I felt some trepidation at what I had just bound myself to, only then having really come to terms with the fact that we would be going to some of the hardest-hit disaster zones. “This is it," I said as I composed myself as quickly as I can, "no turning back now."

On 14 November, the JRRMMC contingent, along with medical teams from the San Lazaro Hospital, Rizal Medical Center, Paulino Garcia J Garcia Hospital, and the Veterans Regional Hospital, set out to go to Samar riding buses bearing our respective mobile clinics. After almost two days of inland travel along Luzon and a 2-hour ferry ride from Bicol to Samar, we arrived at the 8th Infantry Division Camp in Catbalogan City. There, we only had time for refuelling and a brief rest before we headed out, with military escorts this time, to Basey and Marabut, then onwards to Tacloban City, Leyte.

The patients we saw suffered generally from upper respiratory tract infections, acute gastroenteritis, and lacerated and puncture wounds. We tended to patients across a broad age-range -- from young children to elderly people. We sent them off with medicines to complete the treatment course.

Each patient had a unique story to tell about their experience during the storm, how they held on to each other and prayed to God for relief. Some patients cried at the mere sight of our mobile clinics, praising God for answering their prayers. We were hardly familiar with the dialect spoken, but somehow managed to communicate with the locals. We were overwhelmed by their spirit and will to survive. Mostly, they were simply smiling gratefully as we examined them.

The living condition in these places we visited was dismal. Yet, the typhoon victims managed to get up each day to rebuild their homes and their lives. This made us acutely appreciative of the comforts we have taken for granted: a safe environment, free flowing potable water, electricity, warm food and square meals, and comfortable beds.

Around us, the devastation was horrifying. Fully-mature trees and concrete electric posts were snapped in two. Barangays were obliterated. Once concrete structures were reduced to rubble. Vehicles scattered about seem to have been tossed in the air before falling to the ground. Some ships even ended up on land. Tall piles of debris were strewn by the roadsides. Pig carcasses were afloat in the streams. Though the bodies of fatalities have by then been removed, the stench of death still clung to the air.

Later, I learned that the Eastern Visayas Campus of the Philippine Science High School in Palo, Leyte had been converted into an evacuation center. I realized immediately that it was not in the list of places our team was going to make calls to. However, it came as a huge relief when I found out soon after that another medical team had been assigned to look after the evacuees in the PSHS campus in Palo.

Of all the government agencies, it was the MMDA that made the greatest impact on me. They managed to clear the roads quickly and efficiently. With our bus as our sleeping quarters parked alongside their makeshift tents, we saw them wake up and leave very early every morning, and return late each afternoon. I have some newfound respect for the MMDA after witnessing this.

I am grateful to all those who sustained us physically and in spirit during our entire mission. There were residents who brought us food, which were much-welcome breaks from our usual fare of tinned sardines and corned beef. The officers and staff of a telecom outfit allowed us the use of their bathrooms, access to their internet, and the use of their outlets from which to charge our electronic devices. The military personnel of the 8th Infantry Division ensured our safety during the trips to Samar, and provided the environment to inspire our team to be medical Stormtroopers. The humor and camaraderie of my co-members in the medical team were priceless; their dedication and perseverance, especially in the face of difficulties, kept me at my best under the circumstances. Most especially, there were our friends and loved ones who supported us through prayers, who have monitored our progress while we were on the road, who have quietly cheered us on, who believed in our mission, and who eagerly welcomed us back home.

Despite the hardships our team endured, this experience remains most unique and meaningful to me. I know I have helped a bit, but I have grown a lot from it as well!

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