Volunteering missions are always amazing memories. I was nervous going down to the meet-and-greet with Dr Magee and the rest of the volunteers. It’s overwhelming when you are new, especially when you are me, not always so forthcoming on the first day. It was such a relief to have a fun-spirited roommate who was just out and about and almost never left my side. And I guess I was lucky to straight off meet a team member at the start of the party, who dragged me to meet another. It was a lot less nerve-wrecking then.
The next day was a lot easier with the group down in the lobby waiting to get going to the site. Randomly striking up conversations like age/sex/location net speak, but instead – designation/location. The flight was uneventful to Tacloban, a beautiful landing strip just along the coast of the island, and it was quite hilarious that even though they had a conveyor belt, our luggages were transported manually. Then we all piled into a truck, 2 vans and an ambulance, heading towards Jollibee for lunch. However nothing prepared me for the drive. We passed through around 2 hours of towns severely hit by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. There were inhabitable houses and washed up vehicles without the man-power to be cleared. There were tents of both sides of the roads with every imaginable international relief agency logo. The children were just out of school with matching UNICEF school bags. It was a shanty town. Rows and rows of temporary houses, now homes. There were up-rooted coconut trees and electricity lines. Road works were yet to commence.
We drove on and on and on. And we reached post-nightfall. We were tired. Tomorrow was going to be screening day.
Screening day was amazing. I loved handing out candy and stickers to the kids. What I loved the best was that they were waiting for us before we even set-up. Parents advocating for their children – mothers, father, even grandparents. You could see that some of the younger ones were starting to be conscious of their clefts, while the older ones mostly covered their face with a cloth. It was heart-wrenching. But they came and they would be fixed. We screened 59 patients that day. The youngest being 4 months, the oldest, 54 years. We had a full range. However, as smooth and uneventful as that sounds, screening day was a lot worse than that. The weather was hot, there was no air-conditioner and the fans were insufficient. We learnt that the hospital didn’t have an ICU, that the closest one was 4 hours away. We learnt that the recovery room was 200m from the theatres, instead of being within the vicinity. We learnt that we weren’t prepared for this. The day wasn’t over. We had lovely dinner with most of the team at Seranada, possibly one of the nicer restaurants in Borongan, overlooking the seashore. All of us getting to know each other more, striking up conversations and playing Heads Up! terribly.
The next day was team day. We were promised a beach trip. We were excited. It was an hours drive away and we were visiting the town of Hernani, one of the worst hit by the typhoon. For me it was not the tents and the rehabilitation going on that touched me, but it was the upturning of the burial ground. Many of those put to rest in peace, were disturbed even beyond their death with the tombstones overturned, cracked and even unrecognizable. The beach was beautiful – the sands white, the water clear, but even then there was evidence of destruction with coconut trees strewn around, temporary shacks and even a grave of possible father of 2 toddler girls. The water was hot, the air was hot. It was just hot. It was our fault going at noon. After lunch at the seaside, we grudgingly went back to the hospital to get everything sorted for the next day. Let me take this time to paint a quick picture of the town. It’s a place that functions from 9am to 6pm. It is no frills, no cinema, no entertainment, no bars. Most days we were super grateful to Francine’s Grill smack across the street for it’s variety menu.
I’d like to say that surgery week went smoothly, but that would be a lie. The air-conditioner in the operating theatre conked out mid-way. Delegates were sent out to get fans and possibly even buy a new one. The hospital didn’t have stand-by blood for us, so we had to get that transported in from Manila, which was great, but then improper storage happened and we had to throw that away. Hence we were back to a no back-up blood situation. One of our students got the stomach flu and was out of it. But 16/20 scheduled patients turned up and received their surgeries. We had a few more walk-ins which raised our numbers to 66. All the walk-ins were cleared for surgery. We finished off day one of surgery around 8. It was a long day. A long, hot, sweaty day.
Day 2 of surgery was the smoothest. The air conditioner was working, the fans were working, all 20 patients showed up, the stand-by blood situation was sorted and we were in full swing. We even had one additional walk-in that was immediately scheduled for the next day. Everyone from day one of surgery was discharged and fit to go home. It was a rather uneventful day. And we did hope it would continue that way. However, while the children were doing fine, the team wasn’t. The student with the tummy flu was recovering but their were others showing signs of cold, but the cherry on the top was one of our nurses undergoing an unknown allergic reaction and being taken to the hospital for 12 hour observation.
Day 3 of surgery started off with just 13 patients on the schedule. We were glad though that 3 no shows on Monday showed up and those that were previously sick were now able to get the surgery. As usual though, the day did have it’s challenges. The electricity went off mid-operation with a child still on the table. Manual ventilation had to be done, staff had to manually fan the surgeon and others had to manually fan the fanners. Towards later afternoon, the heat broke, the sky was clouded over and it poured. We welcomed the rain in the unbearable heat. But that welcome was short-lived once the water started leaking through the roof onto all the OpSmile equipment and wiring with still one surgery to go. Our nurse was released from observation, but that too was short-lived. She developed breathing difficulties and had to be taken back. We had no adult intubation kits handy. We were helpless. The next day she was accompanied by an anesthesiologist and nurse back to Manila. One of researchers also succumbed to terrible stomach flu.
Our journey towards the Gift of Smiles in Samar was not easy. Especially to those for whom this was a first mission. But I think it was equally hard for the experienced team members who were used to more easier missions. There was obstacle after obstacle. We were holding each others spirits up, lending a hand beyond our designation when necessary. Our team worked together, side by side. On looking back, I’m just thankful. Our team was resilient. Resilience would not be enough to describe the agony the team leaders and coordinators had to go through overcoming all the hurdles. We didn’t have any call backs or sick post-ops. All the surgeries went perfectly. All the children got their smiles. God threw a lot of hardship and difficulty on our path, but we made it through and he saved those children through our strength and courage. Because we would have been so helpless had there been any misfortune with the children. So I’m thankful that it was just us that had to face everything. The people of this town have already undergone enough. They are of the poorest people in the nation.
So, it wasn’t about our comfort. It was about giving them their smiles. And that’s exactly what they got.
We checked out a day early and headed back to Manila. At the airport, well you already know its on the coastline, so much of it was rebuilt. It’s all about cross-ventilation in it. We had to be there scarily early as they don’t have scanners and they had to manually check each piece of luggage. Funny, when you think about it. How much parts of the world has progressed technologically and yet there are areas where if a person needs an ICU he is left to die and a 10 min check-in takes 1 hour. Those people have immense fortitude to live through that unnecessary struggle everyday for those things we take for granted.
Technology. Healthcare. Entertainment. Food. Love. Family. Friendship.
The final party was amazing. All the strife we underwent was evident by how close a team we were and the immense team spirit we had. We stood out in our glory of red. Everyone knew WE ARE SAMAR! We are #luckyteamsamar, no doubt. Go #teamRED! ❤
May God bless those children who have a chance at a new life with a new smile. May God bless the team and allow us to be humble in our work, always. May God bless all the friends linked to each by this experience forever.
For us to overcome certain battles, the battles have to take place.
They have to exist to begin with.
If we weren’t in that place or circumstance or situation,
the scenario would not have taken place.
As you move forward, sometimes break out of your comfort zone
and go to places where you might not necessarily see who are like you
but you know your presence will set a prescient
for those who come after to have it that much easier.
When the opportunity comes to go out and do work,
don’t put conditions on who your allies and your partners could be.
There is no doubt that each of us as individuals can go out and do amazing things on our own,
but just because you can do it by yourself,
doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to start doing things together.