I am sitting in an airport terminal in Seoul, waiting for my connecting flight back to the US. I have more than four hours of layover here – plenty of time to reflect on the things I have witnessed and places I have been in the past few days.
As I look around on this beautiful airport in South Korea, its sturdy structure, its opulent stores, the distant city skyscrapers glistening in the morning sun, I noted that all these provide stark contrast to the place I have just come from. It is a place where there was utter destruction everywhere I looked; what was left was a ghostly reminder of a once thriving city.
The place I went to was Tacloban.
We arrived in Tacloban 2 weeks after super typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) basically wiped out the city. After seeing the horrific news of the calamity day after day on TV and internet, I felt compelled to do something. Something more than financial donations. So I volunteered to go.
I came as a member of ACTS World Relief team. Our group was composed of international physicians, nurses, paramedics and rescue volunteers. Among the doctors that I worked with were several Disaster Medicine specialists from Harvard, an Emergency Room physician trained in Mayo Clinic, an experienced orthopedic surgeon from Colorado, an anesthesiologist from Tennessee, and an Urgent Care physician from Loma Linda Hospital. There was a team of doctors from Abu Dhabi, and a surgeon from Baguio in our team as well. I am proud to work hand in hand with these highly trained and compassionate people.
Even after watching it in the news, witnessing the state of devastation in person was surreal. It was heart-gripping. The stench was gut-wrenching. On my first day there, even if it was already entering the third week after the disaster, our search and rescue team had recovered 9 more bodies. You can just imagine the state of those cadavers. They even found 13 more, but they ran out of bodybags, so they left them to be picked up the next day. On my second day, when we posed for a group photo, we saw a decomposing body of a child in the middle of the street a few feet away from us. It was harrowing.
Our team made Romualdez hospital our command base. The hospital though was damaged from the typhoon and was not operational. Still, the hospital became the “hotel” for several teams. The amenities may be meager, but we have a roof over our heads, toilets (just don’t ask how clean), and cement floor with mats and cardboards for beds (though some were lucky to scavenge foam beds). Those (in)conveniences were still much better condition than what people in Tacloban had. Aside from our group that stayed in the hospital, there were the team from Sweden, a big party (more than 60-doctors strong) from Taiwan, and a squad from Colorado with their rescue dogs.
Instead of hospital setting, everyday our team will be divided to smaller groups and were deployed, with coordination with local leaders, to set-up different mobile clinics. One day my team erected a clinic in a street in the inner city, in the midst of debris and mud. There were teams that went on helicopter mission to reach distant towns, and I was fortunate to join the flight mission (twice!). Some areas we went to were so remote that the terrain can only be reached by a truck. In one particular area, our bus cannot go through any further, so we all hopped on the convoy truck carrying our medicines. We fit 25 people in the back of that flat-bed truck. It was a trip that could rival the thrill of the helicopter ride.
The condition in Tacloban was horrendous. Yet people try to cope to the situation the best they can. I saw vendors of eggs and vegetables on the side of the street. People taking a bath and doing their laundry next to piles of wreckage. Children playing in the street littered with refuse. Somehow they tried to bring back normalcy. But it was far from being normal!
Now the foreign media has gone, and the local press has pursued some other fancies, like the spat between senator Enrile and Santiago. Tacloban and its relief efforts is not hugging the headlines anymore. Yet hopefully these people will not be forgotten, for they still badly need our attention – with or without coverage of the press.
Despite of the calamity, the people in Tacloban were strong and resilient. When I saw patients in our mobile clinics and I asked them how they were they told me: “OK lang doc, buhay pa” (I’m OK doc, I’m still alive). They said this with a smile. But I always eventually found out that they had a relative or a friend who had died. It was story after story of tragedy.
I remember one woman whom I saw on my first day in Tacloban, in one of our clinics. She told me that she lost her husband, and two children during the typhoon as they were washed away by the storm surge. Yet she kept a positive outlook in life. Where she was getting her strength was a marvel to me. The foreign doctors I worked with were really amazed with the spirit of the Filipinos. Yes, typhoon Haiyan was strong, but the Filipino spirit is stronger.
I may be feeling exhausted, sleep-deprived, and emotionally drawn-out after my 5 days tour of duty in Tacloban. But I know that tomorrow night, I will be eating a home-cooked meal, sleeping in my comfortable bed, embracing my wife and hugging my kids. For the people of Tacloban, it will be another day of struggle wondering where will they get their next meal. They will continue to sleep under make-shift shelters from the rubble. And many will cry themselves to sleep, mourning the lost of their loved ones.
The task is so enormous that sometimes we wonder if our little efforts even matter as they are just lost in the sea of need. Coming to Tacloban, I just hope that I can make a difference and make a little change.
Well, it did. It changed me.
(*photos taken with my iPhone)
You can visit ACTS World Relief Facebook page for more photos of their mission.
(**Post Note: the above article was eventually published on Manila Standard Today, Dec 2, 2013.)