Life and Hope in Leyte: Medical and Relief Team Report (November 13-17,2013)
Shortly after one of our doctors in the team (Dr. Gigi Valencia) received an urgent call for help from her bestfriend in Leyte a day after Typhoon Yolanda battered Eastern Visayas, the crucial decision was made: There is a need. We can and we will address that need. The soonest possible time. The quickest possible way. From thereon, the idea was almost instantaneous, the response immediate.
And so 5 days after the world’s strongest typhoon ravaged the province of Leyte and virtually the entire Eastern Visayas region, a composite 14- man team (4 from CCF-CDO, 4 from Bethel Baptist Hospital (BBH) and 6 from Leyte Baptist Hospital (LBH) with 4 doctors, 4 nurses, a dentist, a pharmacist, a logistics staff, a security officer, a pastor/general helper and a driver/general helper set foot in Tacloban City on Wednesday, November 13, for a 5-day medical and relief missions trip.
For the countless friends, loved ones and prayer partners who prayed and gave generously, we recall and now put in writing our activities and God’s faithfulness in all of it during our brief stay in Tacloban City, Palo and Tanauan towns. This is our report.
DAY 1 (NOV 13, WEDNESDAY)
After a much-delayed flight from Cebu punctuated by the unsettling news of a lockdown in Tacloban after lawless elements allegedly ambushed a relief convoy early that afternoon, we touched down at the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport in Tacloban around 5 PM.
Like a typical show window, the sorry state of the airport gave one a summarized view of the city: total and absolute destruction. Save for the runway, there was practically nothing there now that gave the semblance of an airport. No arrival lobby. No baggage conveyor belts. No tour package agents. No transportation queues.
Less than a week after the tragic incident, the airport grounds was expectedly a flurry of assorted activities: incoming passengers swarming at the trolleys to claim their baggage, local and foreign relief workers unloading their relief goods and heavy equipment, local and international news agencies setting up their equipment in any available space, and a long line of dazed and panic stricken individuals and families eager to board the first available plane out of the misshapen city.
The LBH team was already there since early afternoon to meet us. They traveled for about 6 hours from Hilongos but had to make intermittent stops to get updates on the lock-down of the city proper.
After getting hold of 20 out of our 21 check-in cargoes (the last box was only retrieved the following day), we left the airport and were almost immediately welcomed by the stench of accumulated garbage, debris and decomposing dead as we approached the city proper. Citywide curfew was in effect from 8 PM to 5 AM in response to recent incidents of looting and ambushes.
Of utmost importance before we proceed to Palo town was to locate the New Life Baptist Church in Tacloban and establish contact with Ptr. Ed Rayos, the senior pastor. A few days after the typhoon, brethren in Bukidnon became worried after they lost contact with him and his family. After negotiating the now-pitch dark city streets and a few missed turns, we were able to finally locate the church and confirm first-hand that they were all safe and secure in the second floor of the church building, along with a few church members and pastoral staff.
Ptr. Rayos recounted their ordeal as the water level quickly rose up to the level of the church perimeter wall, went inside the first floor and flooded the parsonage. He also expressed sincere gratitude for the prayers, concern and generosity of fellow believers. Just before we left, relief goods were given to them with the assurance that boxes of bottled water will follow once the truck carrying more relief goods and medical supplies arrives by land the following day. We arrived at the Leyte Academic Center (LAC) in Palo around 6:30 PM. The compound houses the PDRRMC and has become the virtual Operations Center (OpCen) of disaster relief and rescue efforts initiated by the provincial government in partnership with other LGUs and private agencies like us. With an intact perimeter fence, round-theclock security, direct access to the Governor and his staff, available satellite phone and power generator, putting up our base here was a logical choice. Paying a courtesy call to the Governor, who was also a victim himself, we were briefed as to the extent of the damage and the relief efforts made thus far.
After the briefing, we were ushered by his staff to the compound grounds where we can pitch our tents. Around that time, Dr Melicor, our team leader, recognized a familiar figure who happened to be Mayor Amante of Butuan City (he is also a Christian orthopedic surgeon and a friend of Dr. Melicor). After days of medical and relief operations, he came to give a final report to the Governor as their convoy is set to leave at dawn the next day. He also made last-minute endorsements to Dr. Melicor as to the nature of most cases and suggested the critical areas to visit. It was also a blessing to receive their cookwares, a big canvass (trapal) which was already in place, tent flooring and some extra medical supplies.
It was lights off at around 9:30 PM with a reminder from the Governor’s staff that we need to transfer our tents a safe distance from the helipad in the morning as Department of Energy (DOE) Sec. Jericho Petilla’s private chopper is expected to arrive around 7:00 AM the next day.
DAY 2 (NOV 14, THURSDAY)
We woke up around 5:00 AM, long before we heard any chopper sounds. Water supply and a decent shower room was a struggle that day, especially to the lady members of our team. Not exactly knowing how they did it, they managed to look refreshed and recharged by the time we gathered for breakfast and devotion. Necessity, indeed, is the mother of invention and innovation. Over a Spartan inspired breakfast of bread, assorted canned goods and hot coffee, Dr. Melicor led us in a short devotion then briefed us on the “game plan” for the day. After loading our food and supplies for the day in the van, we set off to the Palo Municipal Hall to pay a courtesy call to the Mayor and get our assignment for the day.
The municipal building did not escape Yolanda’s wrath, yet vestiges of the intricate woodcarvings inside and outside the building still managed to give us a glimpse of its artistic design. This early, the building is already filled with people lining up for consult, wound care and tetanus shots. Apparently, the municipal health office has set up their operations here.
The tiled floors have become wet and muddy due to the intermittent rains that Leyte is too familiar with. While waiting for our turn, two young nurses approached us after they were told outside that a group of doctors had arrived to see the Mayor. With a sense of urgency, they requested us to help out in the hospital where they are working since their resident physician had been on straight duty for the last 4 days. We had to assure them that we are ready to help but we need to be authorized by the Mayor to do it, thus the need for the courtesy call.
We waited for about 20 minutes before we were ushered in to the Mayor’s office. She was the former Governor and is also the mother of the incumbent governor and current DOE secretary. She was in the middle of a security briefing from local police officials when we arrived.
After a brief audience with the Mayor, we were deployed to two areas: the Schistosomiasis Research and Training Center and Hospital, the very place where the 2 young nurses requested us to assist and the Sacred Heart Seminary, just across from it, where a good number of evacuees had been staying since the aftermath of the typhoon. We divided our group for maximum output, with Dr. Melicor and Dr. del Mundo staying at the Schisto Hospital, Dr. Valencia, Dr. Saceda and the rest of the team at the Sacred Heart Seminary. For purposes of efficient service, we agreed that patients requiring surgical intervention should be referred to the Schisto Hospital for that day. Priority was to attend to wound cases, administer tetanus shots and manage respiratory tract and other skin infections which may have started to set in by now.
The Schisto Hospital team of Dr Melicor and Dr del Mundo managed to assist the physician who had been there for the last 4 days. The nursing staff had been there for the last 72 hours too. Numerous cases of lacerated wounds from high-velocity sharp objects and glass splinters were promptly attended to, along with the usual cases of URTI, AGE and tetanus injections.
We were informed that our team was the first medical team to have augmented the hospital and one can truly sense the sincere gratitude that the patients and staff expressed upon knowing that they were not neglected.
At the end of the day, it has to be said that the real heroes are not the ones who came in and helped, but the ones who stayed and served, despite their own personal pains and losses: they are the homegrown healthcare workers of Palo, Tacloban and other affected towns.
We made sure to encourage them that help is on the way and that more doctors and health workers are coming in after us.
They had been isolated from current events since the typhoon devastated all electric transmission lines and all forms of communication. We updated them on how the international community has started arriving in Cebu and Tacloban to assist them. On a lighter note, they inquired excitedly about developments in their favorite teleseryes but we were certainly a disappointment to them in that aspect. Our time with them benefited us as well as they gave us access to their Dietary facilities where we can eat comfortably and to their uninterrupted water supply and intact toilet/bathroom facilities, a luxury and a rare commodity at that time.
The group at the Sacred Heart Seminary had a good number of patients too, aside from the resident-evacuees that Dr. Ed Valencia, a pediatrician, had to make rounds on in every room of the compound, especially infants and children. It also afforded us the opportunity to establish a relationship with the sisters, one that we hope to nurture in the near future. As a result, the place became the depot for the majority of our supplies for the duration of our stay there.
The following day, just before proceeding to Tanauan town for Day 3 clinics, the sisters gave us the privilege to pray for them! Dr. Melicor did not miss the opportunity and quoted John 3:16 and Revelation 3:20 in his prayer – salvation verses! The sisters were misty-eyed as all of us were. Who knows? In the midst of destruction and the stench of death, new lives may have begun!
DAY 3 (NOV 15, FRIDAY)
Our assignment was in Tanauan town today, about 18 kilometers south of Tacloban City and one of the coastal villages that registered the most number of casualties from the storm surge. Devastation there was absolute and unforgiving.
After paying a courtesy call to the Vice Mayor who also happens to be a medical doctor, he accompanied us to Barangay Cabuynan, about 20 minutes drive from the town proper. As we passed by groups of people along the highway, we would slow down a bit and the Vice Mayor would announce that a medical mission team will be setting up clinic in the barangay hall. Three PNP personnel accompanied our group and stayed with us throughout the clinic.
Upon arrival at the barangay center that still retained most of the debris and outcome of the deadly storm surge, we started doing clinics shortly after unloading and setting up our medicines and supplies. We got some tables from the nearby Day Care Center, which was also severely damaged by the storm surge.
As we pulled out the tables, some barangay officials advised us not to use them as a number of dead bodies were placed on them after the typhoon. We had to tell them that it is OK, and that we just need to clean them and put a white sheet on top of it.
We stayed there the whole day and attended to the medical needs of about 300 patients, not to mention the significant number of minor surgical procedures for simple and complex wounds, most of which were sustained during the typhoon and had gone unattended since then.
We finished a little after 5 PM, not because there were no more patients or medicines but because the place is becoming dark as electricity has not yet been restored.
DAY 4 (NOV 16, SATURDAY)
Our last clinic day was spent in Tacloban City, particularly in Barangay Diit, an interior barangay that was also badly hit by the strong wind, torrential rains and storm surge. We started clinic late, a little after lunch, as we spent the whole morning sorting out the remaining boxes of medicines and supplies for equal distribution to 5 identified recipients: Brgy Tanauan which we delivered later and personally endorsed to the Vice Mayor, who accompanied us to Brgy Cabuynan the day before), Schisto Hospital, New Life Baptist Church in Tacloban, LBH and Burauen town, hometown of one of our team members from LBH. The town also sustained significant damages and casualties during the height of the typhoon.
In Brgy Diit, we started clinic at around 2 PM and saw about 170 patients. The cases we saw followed the pattern that we had become familiar with for the past days: injuries sustained during and after the typhoon, infectious diseases borne by living in crowded evacuation centers. Again, we had to declare a cut-off at sundown due to the absence of electricity. For tonight, we decided not to sleep in our tents in the original campsite as strong winds from arriving choppers blew away our tents last night. Instead, we surveyed a place behind the LAC Compound, which was the abandoned BIR Regional Office. The office, just 2 years old, was no match to the 315 kph winds of Yolanda.
Waterlogged office furnitures and official receipts are scattered all around the place. We felt like survivors walking through a barren place. We decided to camp out in the lobby and called it a day by 10 PM. Tomorrow, we’re homeward bound!
DAY 5 (NOV 17, SUNDAY)
The day started remarkably early for most of us. Maybe because in our tentless state last night, the mosquitoes practically feasted on us, depriving us of the deep sleep we managed to enjoy the previous nights. Or maybe because everybody was just too excited to go home and be reunited with their families again. Or maybe the prospect of finally having a hot rice meal in an airconditioned mall just overwhelmed the sleep out of all of us. Whatever it was, everybody was up and about even before the sun came up.
Water supply for today was way, way more abundant and with more options as well. For the early risers and more daring, the outdoor faucets behind the LAC buildings were available with the daybreak shadows still providing ample cover for somebody who wanted to go all-out in taking a full bath. For the ladies, the relatively luxurious toilet of the BIR office with its unbroken mirrors and sinks was a unanimous choice. What a fitting way to conclude our stay here: a full bath!
Breakfast for today was not out of the ordinary with our “immortal” bread, canned good, coffee and a few more cup noodles. We were amazed once again to realize that our stocks of canned goods and bread are still way above the critical levels! Determined to travel light this time, we decided to give some of it to the security guards assigned at the BIR office and the remaining stocks to the LBH group.
By 7:30 AM, we were all set to go. After Dr. Melicor and Dr. Gigi talked to the Governor and prayed with him, we left the LAC Compound and proceeded straight to the airport. The place was still as disorganized as when we arrived, although maintenance workers and heavy equipments have started clearing up the debris in high-traffic areas.
As expected, the departure area was a complete chaos, with people crowding around a small table in a cramped space where non-uniformed airline staff is supposedly checking the tickets of departing passengers, issuing boarding passes and checking and double checking flight manifests. Check-in baggage is processed manually. The sight of people wanting to leave Tacloban was a scene straight out of the movie, The Killing Fields, when Cambodian nationals scampered to leave Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge closes in to occupy the city.
Finally, we were cleared for boarding! Quick hugs and goodbyes were exchanged between the LBH group and us. They also have a long travel day ahead as they drive back to Hilongos, with a brief stop in Burauen town to give relief goods to Melai’s relatives. There were no seat assignments on our return flight to Cebu. One gets the chance to choose any available window or aisle seat, depending on one’s preference. It was a relief to finally secure our seats in the plane, if only for want of a comfy and cool seat to grab a quick nap before we reach Mactan airport.
As our turbo-prop plane taxied out to the runway in preparation for takeoff, one cannot miss the airport tower with its broken glass windows and the Philippine flag reverently flown at half-mast. It was a silent witness to the death and devastation of just over a week ago. But as it stands there now, bloodied yet unbowed, witnessing life as it moved on amidst the flurry of ground activities below, its message resonates loud and clear: there is life and hope in Leyte.