Friday, December 6, 2013

A Most Unusual Weekend (a chronicle of my medical mission in Tacloban)

Chapter 1. A Tragic Day

The Philippines is the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones. Around 19 tropical cyclones or storms enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in a typical year and of these usually 6 to 9 make landfall.

On November 2, 2013, a low-pressure area about 425 kilometers east-southeast of Pohnpei in the Pacific Ocean was noted.  Moving through a region favoring tropical cyclogenesis, it became a tropical depression early on November 3. Subsequent intensification resulted into the birth of a tropical storm, named Haiyan on November 4. Tracking generally westward along the southern periphery of a subtropical ridge, rapid intensification ensued by November 5 as a central dense overcast with an embedded eye began developing, hence it was classified as a typhoon later that day. By November 6, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) assigned the storm the local name Yolanda as it approached the Philippines' area of responsibility.

On November 7, Yolanda attained its peak intensity with ten-minute sustained winds of 230 km/h. Six hours later, it was estimated to have attained one-minute sustained winds of 315 km/h (195 mph) and gusts up to 378 km/h (235 mph). In the morning of November 8, typhoon Yolanda made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, and became known as probably the strongest tropical cyclone to make a landfall on record.

Regardless of the statistics, typhoon Yolanda will always be remembered as the most unforgiving natural calamity in the Philippines for the year 2013, and perhaps for all time. 

Chapter 2. The Mission

"Do not bemoan the calamity of tomorrow, for you know not what the new day brings." - The Talmund, c. 190 AD

Nov 14, 2013, 3:39 pm. My phone rang while I was on my way home from work in Laguna. Dr. Fernando Santos, the hospital administrator of Pres. Diosdado Macapagal Memorial Medical Center (PDMMMC, also known as Caloocan City Medical Center), asked me if I would be available for a medical mission in Tacloban, for an indeterminate period of time, "probably up to 5 or 7 days.". 

With that, the words of my mother echoed in my ears, for it was her who once told me: "Whenever you find yourself in a situation where someone needs your help, and you are in a position to help, then by whatever means, do offer yourself to help."

So as I remembered the poor victims of Typhoon Yolanda, without any question or any sign of hesitation, I immediately answered "yes". 

The next day, I was at the Caloocan City Hall, waiting for the caravan to leave for Leyte. We were to go by land, a 16-hour drive towards south.

The team had only 2 doctors. I was with Dr Joseph Celino from the Caloocan Health Department, and a handful of eager male nurses [Jonathan Lagas, Paolo Fano, Arnel Apattad, Rae Kristoffer Rodriguez, and John Ray Obado]. 

Accompanied by some volunteer staff from the city hall and some policemen, we began our journey, not completely aware of what was ahead of us.

Day 2: Nov 16, 2013. We went on a "ro-ro" ride [a local nick-name for a ferry ship that carries wheeled vehicles] from Sorsogon to Samar early that day.

Before dawn, we could see the island of Samar.

The San Juanico Bridge connecting the islands of Samar and Leyte was a refreshing sight late in the afternoon.

The expressions on our faces quickly changed after we crossed the bridge to reach Tacloban City, for we were greeted by a dismal scenario that we have never seen before. I was not prepared for this.

By night time, we passed by the Municipal Hall of Leyte...

... and soon reached the MMDA camp.

The whole island of Leyte was devoid of electricity, so we were happy enough that the camp had generators, which were mostly used for lighting up the place, and for charging our gadgets. At a time like this, multiple extension cords are a treasure. Some local folks even came to us to charge their phones.

For the next precious meals of our lives, we would feast on canned goods and instant noodles, and we defined fine dining like this:

The local water service was not available for washing up, so we used a "poso" (manual water pump) from a nearby building, then we retreated to our first class accommodation.

Chapter 3. The Aftermath

Day 3: Nov 17, 2013. We woke up early, and headed into the city and the neighboring towns.

There were moments when we felt we had enough, and we couldn't look anymore...

... because we knew that for the next few days, this will be the world we will see:

...and this.

People devoted their time and energy to vigilance, trying to find signs of queues for food, water, gasoline, and whatever relief goods they can get.

Day and night.

Rich or poor, they were all equal here. Money lost its value. There was nothing to buy.

While thousands of families were left homeless,

... others were just happy to be alive.

Those who did not have any dead members in their families, they were the lucky ones.

Thousands were much less fortunate.

Typhoon Yolanda killed 5,796 people in the Philippines alone.

Having seen all this, I accepted the possibility that I may be scarred for life.

But no possible amount of sorrow can compare with the tremendous burden of grief on the victims and survivors of the typhoon, as their lives are changed forever from now on.

Chapter 4. To Be Willing To Give

But we came here on a mission.

As doctors and nurses, we did what we did best - to serve, and to give hope.

We were tired, hungry and thirsty, but with so many people waiting, and with so little time, we tried to see and treat as many patients as we can, as fast as we can.

People kept coming, patiently falling in line, rain or shine.

They say that God works in mysterious ways. Jesus fed thousands of people with just a few fish and bread. But believe it or not, by the time we finished our mission, in just two days of work, our census showed that we saw not less than 1,300 patients.

The other members of the team gave relief goods... those who have needs most.

Every smile I saw that day...

... brought torrential joyful tears in my humbled heart.

Chapter 5. For Thy Is The Kingdom

There are times when tragedies such as this would test every man. His courage, his strength, his faith.

I cannot even fathom such nightmare.  I would not want this to be happening again.

Not to myself, not to my family...

...not to this poor country. Not now. Not ever.

But until now, I have been trying to ask myself...

What have I learned from all this?
Have I done enough?
What else could have been done?

Maybe if we just look at the signs, we would know what to do.

This was my first time to visit Tacloban City. But I quickly learned that the survivors of Yolanda are strong.

They are hopeful that after each night, the sun would come. 

That after the rain, there would be a rainbow.

That whatever happens, someone somewhere is watching from a distance.

I believe that an assurance of sound government planning and a continuous flow of support will serve as a spark of hope for the people of this region to move on...

... rebuild...

... and rise again, 

... as we always do... a race, 

... as a people, 

... as a nation.

Chapter 6. The Longest Weekend

"everywhere, life is full of heroism." - Desiderata

Day 5: November 19, 2013. It has been a very long journey. We were all emotionally drained and physically exhausted. 

I'm very glad I got the opportunity to be there. Part of me wanted to stay and do more, the other wanted to go home.

But at the end of it all, we knew that we did something good, something right.

We went to the airport, 

... and saw a mass exodus of evacuees, waiting for C-130 jets to Manila.

We went back home...

... knowing we found new comrades and allies...

... and having a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment...

 ... but most importantly, finding out that everybody, ...

...absolutely everybody...

... can be a hero.

Mabuhay ang Pilipino! [Long live the Filipino]

John Emmanuel T. Manalo MD


Thanks to the following for their photos and videos:

Rae Kristoffer Rodriguez
Paolo Fano
Luciano Librado Jr.

for more photos:

additional video: