Hailing from Ormoc in the Phlippines, 17-year-old Alfa Mae Pepito had suffered from poor vision since she was 6 months old. As her parents didn’t take care of her, she was under the care of her aunt, Roseneil Pepito. As a student, Alfa always had to keep her eyes very close to her books and dared not walk fast for fear of tripping over due to poor vision. Because of her awkwardness in school, other students often cast strange looks at her, and that deterred her from pursuing further studies after completing the 6th Grade.
It wasn’t until Alfa’s aunt accompanied her to a Tzu Chi free eye clinic at Tacloban City to receive surgical treatment for both her eyes that her vision was restored. After the successful surgery, Alfa was so moved and excited that she choked with emotions while expressing her joy and gratitude to Tzu Chi volunteers.
A volunteer gently patted Alfa on her shoulder and comforted her. Even her aunt couldn’t hold back her hot, flowing tears, and gave a moving account of her niece’s difficult life: “When she didn’t want to go to school anymore, I waited outside the school gates and did my best to guide her in her schoolwork at home. Now that her eyesight is restored, I am very happy.”
Alfa’s dream was to become a teacher and said after she had calmed down: “I will continue to study hard, and hope to complete at least a college curriculum.”
From 26th to 27th May 2017, Tzu Chi Philippines held a 2-day free eye clinic in Remedios Trinidad Romualdez Hospital in Tacloban City. In total, four ophthalmologists from the Philippines performed 112 cataract removal surgeries, and Alfa was one of such patients. Quite a number of the local patients who had over the past 1-2 years received surgery in one eye at a previous Tzu Chi free clinic came to the hospital to receive treatment in the other eye, thus enabling both eyes to receive sight, which restored hope to their lives.
Besides patients from Tacloban, there were also patients from other regions, such as Ormoc, Biliran, Mayorga, etc. In light of the long travel distances for some of the patients, volunteers made special arrangements for them to stay overnight in the school, so that they could wait in peace for their surgeries the following day.
Patients Returned as Volunteers
37-year-old Marissa R. Garillo, who hailed from Biliran in the northern part of the Province of Leyte, drove about 3 hours from Biliran to Tacloban. Marissa is number 6 in her family of 5 sisters and 4 brothers. To help pay for the school fees of her siblings, Marissa started working as a babysitter at a young age. When she turned 19, she noticed that her vision started blurring, but failed to seek treatment as her family couldn’t afford the expensive medical fees.
This carried on until the year 2015, when Marissa came across Tzu Chi’s free clinic in Tacloban. It was only then that she discovered she had cataracts, and was immediately scheduled for a cataract removal surgery in her right eye. Two years later on this day, Marissa came forward to receive cataract treatment for her left eye. She joyfully exclaimed, “After my eye has recovered, I will join the ranks of volunteers.”
In 2016, Mark Tolibao’s mother, Luciana Tolibao was discovered to have cataracts in both eyes after a routine check-up in the hospital. As his mother had paid a huge medical bill after contracting pneumonia prior to this check-up, Mark could no longer afford the fees for a cataract removal surgery. In the wee hours of 26th May, the mother and son took a two and a half hours’ bus ride from Ormoc to Tacloban, to receive treatment in the free clinic.
In 2013, after Mark’s hometown was struck by Typhoon Haiyan, the roof of his house experienced extensive damage, and Tzu Chi’s aid helped his family to tide through the hard times. After his mother had her cataract removal surgery on her left eye at the free clinic, he asked her: “Do you know how many people there are here?” His mother immediately started to count the number of people before her eyes, and could even identify a volunteer from Ormoc.
Mark had originally thought that his mother was only visiting the doctor for a check-up the next day; little did he expect the doctor to proceed with the cataract removal procedure for her right eye, too. Prior to the surgery, Mark’s mother could only see as far as three metres, and constantly needed someone to watch out for traffic while the crossing road. With the sight in both her eyes fully restored, his mother could finally manage many things by herself.
Ormoc was one of the hardest hit region in the destructive wake of Typhoon Haiyan. It became acquainted with Tzu Chi through cash-for-work relief programmes organized by Tzu Chi volunteers in the aftermath of the calamity. Local resident Arnel Guillero, who has a darkened complexion acquired through many years of riding a Tuk Tuk under a blazing sun, developed cataracts 10 years ago.
When Typhoon Haiyan struck the region, Arne’s wooden house was destroyed under the weight of his neighbour’s two-story building when it collapsed in the fierce storm. Later, when Tzu Chi was building shelters in the region, Arnel was one of the early batch of beneficiaries who took part in the cash-for-work relief programme. Under the long-term influence of Tzu Chi, he has abstained from many past bad habits, such as the habit of chain-smoking 10 cigarettes a day, frequent drinking sessions with friends and the sport of fighting cocks.
Through the invitation of Tzu Chi volunteers, Arnel has joined the ranks of recycling volunteers, and collects recyclables on a daily basis. After receiving cataract treatment in his left eye, he said with much gratitude: “I’ve learned many things in Tzu Chi. People here treat one another like brothers and sisters. I will continue to volunteer with Tzu Chi.”
At the free clinic, many locals shared the many twists and turns in their lives, and many of their stories had something to do with Typhoon Haiyan. Ophthalmologist Dr Bernardita C. Navarro said with deep memories of the terrible storm: “There was no greenery to be seen in Tacloban, and visitors were greeted with a thick stench of corpses right from the moment they stepped out of their planes. Both the adults and children were frightened by the sight of rain, and everyone worried when the next typhoon might revisit their devastated homeland. Besides witnessing their houses being ripped apart by the storm, many people’s glasses were swept away by the torrential rains.”
“I often told my students that time flies, and that we must live each day to the best of our abilities.” Dr. Bernardita resonates with Tzu Chi’s spirit of Great Love, and often devotes herself to treating the visually-impaired patients in Tzu Chi’s free clinics; she even shares this humanitarian medical spirit with her students as much as she can.
Besides the free eye clinic, a 3-day large-scale Tzu Chi free clinic was concurrently held in a local school, offering a wide variety of medical services, including internal medicine, surgeries, pediatrics, dentistry, Traditional Chinese Medicine. There were also opticians to conduct eye check-ups and prescribe glasses for local residents.
An optometrist from the Philippines, Dr. Philip Chua, shared that since the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, he had always wanted to do something for the residents in Tacloban, and he was finally able to fulfil his wish this time. In the span of three short days, the Tzu Chi free clinic prescribed glasses for over 1,000 people. Although he was extremely busy, his heart was filled with an inexplicable joy. He remarked with a tinge of sadness: “Many local children do not know the extent of their myopia,” and vowed to continue to serve those in need.