The first time I wrote about Haiyan (local name Yolanda), I was writing as an observer, a Filipino who has seen the damage of Haiyan only through pictures and video clips shown on TV or in the internet. Now I write as an involved person. During the last week of November, I was given the opportunity to join in a Relief Operation/Medical Mission for the victims of Haiyan in Bantayan Island, Cebu, Philippines.
The team for the mission consisted of 3 doctors, 3 nurses, 5 nuns, and a support staff all aiming to bring relief supplies and medical aid (and hope!) to Haiyan-hit areas in the island of Bantayan. This is a chronicle of what I have seen in the areas we visited, of my experiences as a first-time volunteer in a relief ops/medical mission, and of the entire spectrum of emotions I felt in my participation in this mission.
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Day 1: November 28, 2013
Time: 7:53 AM
Location: At the Visayan Sea
We catch a glimpse of the Bantayan shoreline. While several of my companions have already seen it before, it is my first time to ever lay eyes on it.
It is breathtaking in its perfection.
Our seacraft moves closer.
It is then that its scars are revealed.
We recognize it is far from perfect.
Bantayan Island is one of the many islands in Central Visayas, Philippines that was badly hit by Supertyphoon Haiyan when it struck the country on November 8, 2013. Three weeks later, the island is still reeling from the aftermath of the devastating calamity.
“Parang sa sine lang (It was as if in the movies),” a resident of Bantayan related to us shortly after we set foot in the island and settled in what would be our home for the next 3 days. She further shared that the water at the beach rose up 7 meters and you could just see people scrambling for their lives. They didn’t know where to take cover—some moved sideways to the right, others to the left, and still others, directly opposite the oncoming force of nature.
But there was no escaping it. Engulfed by the crippling calamity, the island suffered a major blow. The quaint nipa hut cottages of the resorts that lined Bantayan’s coastline were mostly swept clear, leaving only piles of debris in the supertyphoon’s wake.
Residents report that they were told it would still take 5 months before power in their community is restored. “Bagsak na ang ekonomiya (The economy is down),” a resident wistfully said, probably wondering how else they’re going to make a living for the next 5 months when they could no longer run their resorts and offer good accommodations like they used to be able to. Christmas will be dark for them this year, was all I can think of.
On the afternoon of our first day there, our group met with the government leaders of several municipalities in the island and also did an ocular survey of the area.
Close to where we were staying (which was just a few meters away from the coastline), there were a bunch of Bantayanon kids playing at a fallen coconut tree.
They would struggle to climb on the horizontal trunk of the tree, then make it bounce them up and down in synchronized rhythm, and finally jump off altogether after a chorus of “1-2-3!”
I smiled at the sight, and at the distant sound of their laughter. Come hell or high water, kids will be kids. They will play. They will remain to be symbols of carefree joy and hope even amidst desolation.
A little while on, the kids started walking towards the sea, which was where we were moving towards as well.
As we went on our way, I chatted a bit with an older child in the group. His name was Peter. He said he was 13 years old, but I had to ask him again and again if he really was 13 already. I thought my ears were only betraying me; he certainly looked too small for his age.
But though thin and gawky, Peter was a jolly kid. In the brief time I spent talking to him, he never lost the smile in his face. I asked him which part of the island he lived, and he pointed towards the midland.
“Anong pinagkakaabalahan nyo ngayon? (What’s keeping you busy nowadays?)” I asked.
“Nagbabantay ng bata (Watching over little children),” he answered, still with a smile in his face.
I didn’t get to talk to Peter much more than that, as they gained ground and moved ahead of our group to sit by the seaside. I and my other companions reached the seaside too, after a little while. I stood just a few meters behind where they were gathered and looked around.
So this is Bantayan Island, I thought to myself. It is indeed a gem. The sands beneath my feet were fine and even whiter than that of the world-famous Boracay. Its beauty was raw, but there was something in its winds that told of a sad story, as if whimpering its plight to anyone who cared enough to listen closely.
My gaze got pulled back to Peter and his group sitting by the seaside.
They were quiet, seemingly feeling the breeze that ruffled their clothes. It seemed to me as if they were immersing themselves in some self-prescribed Zen/meditative therapy to help them past the trauma of the calamity.
What were they thinking right at that moment? I couldn’t help but wonder. I wished there was something I could say to them at that moment that will somehow be of help or comfort to them. But words failed me.
· ♠ ·
Day 2: November 29, 2013
Time: 8:15 AM
Location: Brgy. Obo-ob, Bantayan Island, Philippines
We arrive at Brgy. Obo-ob, the first of the four baranggays we planned to conduct our relief drive and medical mission in. Seeing the condition of the physical environment there for the first time—the fallen trees, roofless houses, destroyed community structures—I feel dismayed.
But then I see the people—their faces, wide-eyed and eager to get their share of the help we were about to deliver—and goosebumps overwhelm me; I feel almost inadequate to fill the gaping hole I see before me. You cannot save everyone, a voice in my head reminds me. Just do what you can.
But will what I, and this small group of people with me, be able to do for this people today be enough? Bags of goods that’ll probably last these residents less than a week, and medicines that are limited both in quantity and kind. What difference will it make, really? I struggled to stay hopeful for these people.
This, I believe, is one of the greatest challenges any volunteer to such relief missions always has to contend with. I read once before that one of the major reasons why people are less charitable than they could be is the “futility mindset” that grips them whenever they see a condition that needs to be changed or helped. Especially when the situation is presented in such a general way that everyone is called to help but no one in particular is named to stand up and help out in specific ways, the futility mindset is prevalent. People who could’ve done something to help don’t end up actually helping because they think that what they do won’t make any much of a difference anyway.
The futility mindset might’ve also defeated me into inaction had I not been already there at that moment. But I was already there. The triage table was set up, and I and two other nurses manned it as we did the initial assessment of the people who were seeking consult with the doctors in our team. Beside us, the nuns who were with us in the mission were facilitating the giving out of relief goods for the residents of the baranggay. The medical mission and provision of relief supplies were thus held smoothly and simultaneously that morning.
In the afternoon, we moved to another baranggay in the municipality of Madridejos still in Bantayan Island.
It was Baranggay Pili.
As usual, we nurses took charge of the initial assessment of the patients that sought consult with our team’s doctors. We would take their vital signs and ask them the symptoms they were having and the main health concerns they wanted checked. The afternoon proceeded mostly smoothly.
But after conversing with a good number of people who fell in line for the medical mission, my co-nurses and I began noticing that many of these people were seeking medical attention not mainly because of physical problems, but of concerns that were, in our opinion, psychological in nature. Many complained that they’ve been having sleeping problems (mainly not being able to sleep) since the calamity occurred over three weeks ago. Several also talked of being more jumpy and having palpitations in the wake of the incident.
Knowing that I was taking up my masters in Psychology, my co-volunteer nurse beside me would periodically turn to me as if asking for hints on how to deal with the situation every time such concerns popped up in our triage table.
And every time she did that, a part of me inside would be like,
Because honestly, though I am done with 9 units of psychology courses at the graduate level, I felt that I had neither the confidence nor the competence to go all psychotherapeutic on the people sitting before me. Frankly, I was—and still am— both disappointed and ashamed at my incapacity to handle those situations better.
But all along, I kept in mind this rule of not attempting to do any sort of psychological intervention on anyone who has just been through a traumatic incident when you have not been trained to institute such interventions. Before I went for the mission, I did read up on a few things about Psychological First Aid (PFA) and also the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) in Emergency Settings, but nonetheless, I had to remember that I was allowed to join in that medical mission as a registered nurse, and not a psychologist. I was careful not to overstep my boundaries in terms of the responsibilities I was tasked to fulfill.
But faced with such verbalizations and cues of psychological concerns from the patients seeking our help, of course we nurses and also the doctors in our team couldn’t turn a deaf ear just because we weren’t trained in PFA or the MHPSS Guidelines. I, and I believe also my co-volunteers, tried our best to lend patiently listening ears, address immediate needs, encourage positive coping strategies, exhibit compassion, and empower a sense of self-efficacy in the Haiyan survivors we interacted with during that mission.
That we were there to help in what little way we can, I believe, served to at least brighten up that day for them even when we cannot do much to pull them totally off the quagmire at the time.
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Day 3: November 30, 2013
Time: 8:35 AM
Location: Brgy. Sulangan, Bantayan Island, Philippines
Day 3 of the mission and we were in the second-to-the-last baranggay on our list: Brgy. Sulangan of the municipality of Bantayan. What stood out for me in this baranggay was the particularly long line of people who sought medical consult.
The line was so long that we had to cut it short without getting to cater to at least 20 people who had fallen in line to see the doctors as well. As we could not tend to all of them (we still had to get to the next baranggay for our mission in the afternoon), we had to prioritize only the senior citizens and apologize to the rest. I felt lucky just to be at the part of the table where everyone lining up were senior citizens, and not having to be the one to tell the rest that we could no longer accommodate them.
To cut the line was a painful thing to do, but as it was, we had to move on to the next and final baranggay on our list: Brgy. Marikaban at the municipality of Sta. Fe, Bantayan Island.
Out of all the baranggays we visited, for me Brgy. Marikaban was the most challenging. Maybe it was because it was especially hot that time of the day, or because the medical mission kicked off with all the people pushing on our triage table, or because of all the noise that made hearing the tap-tap sounds I was listening for as I took blood pressure readings all the harder to hear. Or maybe it was because it was the last baranggay and I was at the end of my rope, sopping up what little remained of the energy I had packed in for the mission I joined.
The line seemed endless that afternoon, but I told myself it was the final stretch and I kept my head down working, checking on and interviewing one person, after another, after another, after another. I remember looking up from my table to check on the line of people we still had to see, and every time the line grew shorter, more people would line up and make the line longer again. I had to make a conscious decision to keep going amidst the heat of the unforgiving sun and the noise and the dry air I was breathing.
And then a woman with a baby came forward and sat down on the chair before me. At first, I wondered whether I would need to summon up extra patience in case the baby decided to throw a tantrum and cry uncontrollably while I struggled to check on its temperature or heart rate.
Then I began talking to the mother and learned that she was seeking consult for herself (she had a mild cough) and not the baby. I started taking down notes and checking on her, then shot a glance at the baby just to see whether it was a bomb bound to explode if provoked, or just a harmless bundle of well-fed peace cuddled in its mother’s arms.
It was neither.
What met my eyes was a bright little being that absolutely glowed with positivity and joy. I literally stopped in my tracks and had to marvel at it for probably a few seconds too many. The baby was smiling so brightly I thought it was the personification of joy itself, and it was not just smiling, it was smiling particularly at me. It was attempting to stand on its plump legs, bending its knees and flailing its hands in an attempt to balance and carry its weight, which of course it still could not do at that age and so had to be supported with its mother.
I automatically smiled at the sight, although my smile could not have surpassed the one that baby radiated. I felt all my exhaustion evaporate from me, and it was replaced by the lightness, joy, and good vibes that baby emanated. My energy meter shot back up to fully charged, and I could’ve continued working ‘til nightfall owing to that baby’s impact at me. Although it still couldn’t speak, it seemed to me as if it was gesturing to greet me, maybe even amuse me somehow.
Oh, it was such a joy. I wish I had more sense that time and captured the moment with a camera, but nonetheless, the image of that smiling bundle of joy is still very clear in my mind even now, and probably for the rest of my life.
· ♦ ·
To cap off the last day of our mission, we spent time walking along the shoreline of Bantayan Island.
These group of Bantayan kids were at the beach loudly and heartily laughing together. Although we had no idea what they were laughing about, I no longer bothered myself wondering what they were so happy about. It was such a wonderful sight to see, a heartwarming sound to hear, and a hope-inspiring image to remember.
This was the first time I ever joined a Relief Ops-Medical Mission for a disaster area, and I know now that this certainly won’t be the last. Joining this mission was for me moving, heart-wrenching, and inspiring all at the same time…truly, truly, one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done, and one of the best experiences of my life. ♥
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
― George Eliot
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