Two years ago, one of the strongest tropical typhoons ever recorded in history dubbed “Super Typhoon Haiyan”, wrought devastating damage in Tacloban City on Leyte Island in the Philippines. The Tzu Chi Foundation stepped in with free clinic and “cash-for-work” initiatives, with the result that the streets were cleared of typhoon debris, and the city soon could once again function normally.
Though traces of the past disaster are hardly evident to the eye now, Tzu Chi’s presence is still felt. In 1997, Tzu Chi volunteers in the Philippines organised their first large-scale free clinic in Tacloban. Since then, they have been organising such medical outreaches to serve needy patients in different parts of the country. From 22 to 24 October 2015, the Foundation’s branches in Singapore and the Philippines, together with its Tacloban contact office, held the 204th Tzu Chi free clinic in the Philippines at Leyte Progressive High School in Tacloban.
From 19 to 21 October 2015, a few teams of volunteers from both countries arrived to set up the clinic venue, turning a classroom in Leyte Progressive High School into a small operating theatre. At the medical outreach in the following three days, there were volunteers from Singapore, Taiwan, and the cities of Tacloban, Ormoc and Cebu, making up a total of 480 pairs of helping hands from 6 different locales.
This is the first joint cooperation free clinic initiative between the Singapore and Philippine Tzu Chi branches. In mid-July this year, Singapore TIMA members had flown to Leyte Island for a site inspection and discovered that there was a minimum eight hour wait for the transit flight from Manila to Tacloban. After some discussion with the airline management, in consideration of the large number of people involved and the good rapport they had with Tzu Chi, it was finally decided that the flight would take off six hours earlier than previous schedules so that the medical team could reach Tacloban by 8am and start the free clinic at twelve noon.
Word of Mouth Brings Patients to the Free Clinic
Captain Judith O. Casco, once a disaster victim of Typhoon Haiyan herself, expressed how grateful she was to be given the chance to help the needy families in Tacloban. She had taken part in cleaning up the city in the aftermath under Tzu Chi’s “cash-for-work” programme and is now a staff in charge of administrative matters at Tzu Chi’s contact office in Tacloban.
Judith had invited the active local volunteers to discuss how to reach out to more volunteers with the result that almost 100 of them eventually signed up for the free clinic initiative. The volunteers also spread the word through radio broadcasts and word of mouth via friends and family, so that many more of those living in the far flung areas could benefit too. Apart from Tacloban, patients from nearby Samar province were also expected.
Volunteers from Two Locations Join Hands in Cleanup Efforts
The two locations for the medical outreach were Leyte Progressive High School, and Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Centre (EVRMC), which was where the major surgeries and ophthalmology services took place. On 19 October, three days prior to the opening of the free clinic, about 50 Tacloban volunteers, together with their Manila counterparts, lent their hands to clean up every corner of the High School.
Manila volunteer Charlito Centes described the cleaning work as a form of respect for patients. Upon seeing how spick and span the free clinic facilities were, they would naturally develop confidence in the medical services offered. Rosalinda Lanzarote, another volunteer from Tacloban, was also very happy to be helping out and said that it was just like cleaning up her own home. Chieh Fang Uy, the administrative secretary of the Philippines branch, too, did not forget to express her gratitude to these volunteers for their invaluable help in many areas.
Turning a School into a Modern Clinic
From 19 to 21 October 2015, 104 volunteers from Manila and Singapore arrived at the clinic venue, and they were very busy during the three days, ensuring that there would be water and electricity supplies, while also setting up the clinic and the waiting area.
The volunteers installed two air-conditioning units in the surgery room on the first floor of the school. They also thoughtfully put up a piece of canvas cloth in the semi-open air classroom to prevent the cool air from escaping. Light bulbs were also added on the ceiling to adjust the lighting in the room.
Li Hui Tian, a volunteer in charge of utilities provision, wanted to install a partition in the room to ensure the privacy of the patients. After his inspection during the site visit, he requested local volunteers to prepare wooden sticks and canvas cloth so that the Manila-Singapore team only needed one morning to get the partition ready.
Of paramount importance was the disinfecting procedures. Veteran Singapore TIMA member Lisa Chong stressed that the manner in which disinfection was carried out, and the provision of a sufficient and reliable source of electricity could not be overlooked. Volunteers purchased two barrels of clean, filtered water from the government and connected a 50m water hose to the sink countertop for the use of washing medical instruments. Also, to ensure a reliable electricity source, volunteers specially rented two power generators and tested the voltage carefully to ensure compatibility with the medical equipment from Singapore.
To Malcom James Ching, a first-time coordinator for the utilities team from Tacloban, this was a big challenge. He commented that the enthusiastic cooperation of the Singapore volunteers had left a deep impression on him. After this experience, he believed that he would be able to help organise future free clinics even more efficiently.
On 21 October 2015, as all volunteers gathered inside the school for a briefing, the Tacloban volunteers gave a robust welcome to their foreign counterparts. They were all eager and ready to serve at the medical outreach the following day.
Free Clinic Opens Its Doors to the Needy
On the morning of 22 October 2015, which was the first day of the free clinic, the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore arrived with a large team of volunteers from Singapore who had taken the midnight flight, and they headed straight for the free clinic after touching down at 11am.
While Tacloban has largely regained the semblance of bustling normalcy, many of the residents living in poverty cannot afford proper meals and medical care, in part also due to the limited medical facilities available. Also, due to their lifestyle habits and environmental factors, it is not uncommon to see residents suffering from special medical conditions.
The free clinic was scheduled to open its doors only at 1pm, yet even before 7am, a long queue had formed, made up of elderly folks, pregnant women, mothers carrying babies and sick young children. They gathered outside its doors, shielding themselves from the hot sun with umbrellas.
On this occasion, various types of minor and major operations, cataract, ear, nose and throat (ENT), dental, internal medicine, paediatric and TCM medical services were offered. In addition, patients could also undergo eye screening and get a prescription for spectacles. As patients awaited their turn to see the doctor, local volunteers on duty introduced Tzu Chi’s work to them, taught them Tzu Chi’s unique sign language songs, and involved them in group activities, hoping to bring comfort and inspire goodness in their hearts.
“Tzu Chi’s charitable funds come from public donations. With just one peso per person, we can become givers ourselves,” said Lilia, a Marikina city volunteer, in Tagalog. Many other Marikina volunteers also shared their own stories of how, from disaster victims, they had become a part of Tzu Chi. They also shared the Tzu Chi philosophies of vegetarianism, environmental protection, and its Ten Precepts.
Medical Skills Successfully Enable a Patient’s Mobility
Barda, a 35-year-old Tacloban resident accompanied by his wife, arrived at the free clinic with the help of a walking stick. Five years ago, his hands and legs were injured in an explosion when he was attempting to use a soldering iron to do repair works on his lorry. Though he used to have a stable income as a lorry driver, the medical fees drained his resources, and he decided to discharge himself after a month-long hospital stay. Since then, he has resorted to the traditional remedy of applying medicine made of guava leaves onto his wounds.
On his body were obvious burn scars left behind by the lack of adequate medical care, and the skin at the back of Barda’s left knee had shrivelled and fused together resulting in him not being able to straighten it. This seriously affected his mobility and though he once again sought medical attention for his problem, the doctors felt that his condition was too complicated to attempt surgery.
Explaining that the back of one’s knee is where many blood vessels and nerves are located, thus such a surgery would indeed be difficult, Dr. Fong Poh Him, assisted by Dr. Tang Man Hon, nevertheless operated on Barda successfully. They cut open the skin at the problematic site and grafted skin from his abdomen onto the area. After the two-hour procedure, Barda could straighten his leg; a smile lighted up his face when he realized that his feet could now touch the ground.
Speaking tearily, Barda said, “I recall how good life was before the accident, when I could work and earn a living. (I’m) very grateful for Dr. Fong’s and Dr. Tang’s help and hope to regain my health speedily, start working, and earn my own keep just like in the past.”
First Acupuncture Experience Brings Instant Relief
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts are foreign to the Filipinos, and being treated with the accupuncture method by the Singapore and Taiwanese doctors was a new experience for the locals. Ghito Compac, a construction worker, has suffered from joint inflammation in his legs for the past three years. Seeing the banner at the free clinic, he decided to drop in with his wife. He had never even heard of TCM, and had originally planned to get a queue number to see a general practitioner. However, he ended up at the TCM section quite by chance and confessed that he had wanted to get up and run when he saw the acupuncture needles in the physician’s hand.
Ghito decided to stay after he was reassured by the explanations of the attending physician and volunteer. TCM Physician Zhang Xiao Fang carefully inserted needles into his legs while volunteer Cai Shun Zhen even comforted him with recitations of the Buddha’s name. His contorted expression as he clutched tightly on a pillow belied his fear at his first acupuncture session and elicited bemused smiles from everyone.
“It was like an ant bite when the needle went in; upon taking it out there was some pain similar to an electric shock,” recounted Ghito. Pleased that his joint pains were gone after the session, he announced that he would like to undergo another session in future.
Deft Hands Restore Sight
There are many local cataract patients and on average, most are not able to afford the high cost of treatment.Tzu Chi’s records show that half of the 400 who registered for the free clinic services were cataract sufferers.
In the consideration of patient safety, major operations and cataract surgeries were carried out at the EVRMC. The former was undertaken by a joint Philippine and Singapore medical team, while cataract operations were conducted by the local TIMA convenor, Dr. Antonia Say, and his team. In order to serve more patients, Dr. Antonia Say and his team started work early in the morning shortly after 6am each day.
The youngest cataract patient, 22-year-old Rosemarie, had suffered from impaired vision since she was 8 years old. Luckily for her, the teachers were very patient with her and she eventually graduated without problems. This experience made her aspire to become a teacher herself one day, however her vision had been drastically deteriorating since the beginning of the year, and her dream seemed to drift further out of reach. With her father’s income of 1,200 pesos a month, they could barely get by. Though she was successful in getting a medical grant for the surgical fee, she could not afford to pay for the other associated fees such as for medicines. Fortunately for Rosemarie, she regained the sight in one eye with Dr. Say’s expertise. She is grateful for this and hopes to return for surgery on her other eye the next time, and eventually achieve her goal of becoming a teacher.
The three-day free clinic ended its last day on 24 October 2015. The hot weather did not deter a steady stream of patients from turning up and for them too, the humbleness, sincerity and respect that they experienced from the Taiwan and Singapore doctors had left them a deep impression. On the other hand, though the foreign doctors had to cope with the language barrier even as they worked to serve large numbers of patients, they drew strength from the Great Love that was similarly present in everyone’s hearts, sharing the common hope to bring Taliban residents a better future.