Left Behind in Albuera

(Last week was the 3rd year anniversary of the super typhoon Yolanda hitting the Visayas. With the town of Albuera, Leyte sharing some headline news, though for the wrong reasons, that I wrote this article.)

Unless you’re hiding under the rock, you probably have heard that the mayor of Albuera Leyte, Rolando Espinosa, who was linked to illegal drug trade, was gunned down while he was in prison.

After learning the news, and after tracing back my memory and confirming where Albuera is, I ascertained that I visited this town three years ago.

A week after Yolanda ravished Tacloban, I volunteered to join a medical team headed by ACTS World Relief Team (see previous post) and a group of Harvard doctors specializing in Disaster Medicine. I was the lone Filipino doctor from the US in that group that came.

When we landed in Tacloban my heart sank after seeing in person the utter devastation of the place.

In one of our medical missions, a small team was sent from Tacloban to fly to Albuera. Two small helicopters loaded us up – 4 doctors (2 Americans, 1 local doctor-in-training from Romualdez hospital, and me), 1 military personnel who was our security detail, and several boxes of medicines and medical supplies.

After 40 minutes of flight time, we arrived in Albuera. The mayor of the town, Ramon dela Cerna Jr., (the mayor before Espinosa) was waiting for us there. After brief greetings, we were taken to the nearby health center where hundreds of people were already in line, waiting for the medical team.

We worked furiously for about four hours before our medications and medical supplies ran out. We decided then to close the clinic, though it was kind of sad as there were still people waiting in line. However we have triage and screened those in line and we have seen those that needed immediate care.

The municipal office even provided us simple meal, if I remember it right, chicken and rice. I’m sure food was in short supply at that time after the devastating storm, but they were still able to offer us what they have. That’s Filipino hospitality in action, offering the best for the visitors even if we have nothing left for us.

When we finsihed eating we were taken near the beach, not for a swim, though that would be nice, but because there was a clearing  there for the helicopters to land. While waiting for our ride, Mayor dela Cerna kept us company telling us stories of the storm’s tenacity, but even more of his people’s tenacity to rise to this challenge of life.

When our ride finally came, it was a lone helicopter, instead of two. It was a small one too, and can only fit three passengers.  There were five of us.

The pilot said that the other helicopter was sent on another important trip. He also said that he was not sure if he could  make a second trip as he might be sent for a more pressing mission, or maybe it would be too late in the day as the afternoon sun was quickly going down the horizon.

We knew that the roads were in bad shape, mostly blocked with debris from the typhoon. So most likely we cannot travel by ground back to Tacloban even if we wanted to.

I know we cannot leave the two American doctors behind. Too much liability for their safety. I also know that if we leave the local doctor-in-training and the soldier, the headquarters may not be too obligated to send back the helicopter for them, and they just have to find a way to travel back by ground the next day or so.

That was when I decided, that I will be the one to stay. The soldier volunteered to stay with me too. Since the headquarters knew that I was a member of the US group, maybe they will be compelled to come back for me. Besides I feel safe among my people.

After the helicopter departed, the mayor took me to the municipal hall, and told me that I can hang out there while I waited for my ride home. The mayor also promised me that if for some reason they were not able to come back for me,  he would find a way to send me back to Tacloban the next day. That’s a 120 km trip which usually takes 3 hours, though could be much longer with the uncertainty of the road conditions.

The mayor then went back to work, while I found a comfortable seat inside the municipal hall.

Not too long after, someone approached me making sure I was doing fine. She introduced herself as the mayor’s sister. I told her to not to worry about me, for I can keep myself entertained. Or since it was a long day for me, I could also catch some cat naps while waiting.

While I sat there, a group of the mayoral staff held their meeting near where I was. I was too sleepy to eavesdrop to what they were discussing. Maybe they were planning on how to take over the world. Before long, I faded into Lala land.

After more than an hour or so, I was informed that the helicopter was coming, and it would be landing in about 15 minutes or so. I said goodbye to my host, including Mayor dela Cerna. The soldier and I were taken back near the beach for the helicopter pick up.

On our flight back to Tacloban, the soldier who was with me, was thankful that I decided to stay and thought it was brave of me to stay behind in a strange place with uncertain circumstances. He was sure that if it was him and the other local doctor who were left behind, the helicopter would not come back for them.

I just thought that it would just be another adventure if in case they didn’t come back for me. Or perhaps I’ll have the people of Albuera adopt me for a time.

The advantage for being left behind? The trip back to Tacloban was beautiful, as we flew into the sunset.

*********

 PS. A shout out to the people of Albuera: damo nga salamat!

 

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