Surgical Mission in the Philippines: We came, we saw, they conquered us
Today we’re re-blogging an incredible story and photos from volunteers Eva & Andrew.
“Aguiaman,” which is to say thank you in Ilocano. This is the language spoken in Apayao and Ilocos Norte, the most northern regions in the Philippines. It is difficult to find words that describe our experience with NGO Mission to Heal (M2H), but we will try:
After a four hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we got in a taxi and headed for the bus station. The journey lasted almost an hour, when in a normal situation would have probably lasted 20 minutes. But what is normal? Normal is the usual, the standard, but is also a very biased term. In the capital, Manila, normal is crazy traffic surrounded by grey buildings and clouds of pollution. Normal is the bombardment of advertising posts, street vendors and cattle trucks on main roads. And who are you to say this is not normal? Exactly. It’s amazing how quickly one adapts to the normality of the unknown.
We arrived at the station, bought the tickets and went to eat something at a nearby restaurant. It was a locals’ area, no tourists. Kids with uniforms who were passing by waved at us and shouted, “Welcome to the Philippines!” It soon became very obvious smiles and humility are the norm in here.
While putting our bags on the bus, the driver warned us to take some jackets and blankets with us for the ride. Jackets and blankets? For a 16 hour ride in an antique bus with 30 other people? Not to mention the 30°C heat in the shade. Well, there goes another sign of our Western biases. We took our light jackets and got on the bus… and did not regret it.
The following morning we arrived at Junction Luna, Apayao. A place where the landscape stands in stark contrast to Manila. This ‘one-street-light’ town is surrounded by mountains covered by lush green forest with white clouds perched on top the highest peaks. The team scooped us up and delivered us to the ambulance and mobile unit. Although M2H has been traveling to less privileged areas of the world for 50 years now, this is the first time they have deployed the mobile unit on a mission. The mobile surgical unit consists of a brand new ambulance and trailer equipped with two operating tables and a full surgical suite. Together, this bundle can carry out minor operations (cysts, lipomas…) and major operations (hernias, tracheotomy …) with the proper staff. Despite the non-traditional operation room (OR) setting, sterilization processes are rigorous and the reception by local doctors and nurses was very enthusiastic.The system was very simple, the local government announced in advance the dates M2H would be there and specified the types of cases that could be treated. When we arrived in the morning there were already long lines of people waiting to be seen. On one particular day, more than 190 patients were treated.
Andrew had previously been on several missions (Nigeria, Malawi, and Liberia), so he had a pretty accurate idea of what the experience was going to be like. In my case, I had no idea what to expect but was very excited about it. However, coming from an academic background in humanities, I was a little concerned about not being as useful as I would like. I was quickly proven incorrect. Medical students quickly taught me how to measure patients’ vitals. A few days after I learned how to sterilize. I then became familiar with the instruments and started assisting in minor operations.
The first time I saw a 10cm cut in somebody’s back struck me very much. Struck in the sense of “Wow, that is very cool!” I did not feel disgusted, or overwhelmed by blood. Just in awe of the work being done before my eyes. After, I started to observe and assist as much as I could and asked a lot of questions hoping that by the end of the stay I would be ready to take a more active role.
A couple of days before we left, Dr Geelhoed – founder, director and soul of M2H – allowed me to operate with him a cyst on a man’s toe. And so I did! Local anesthesia, incision, remove, subcutaneous suture and dressing. Explained just like this it sounds very “pro” but the truth is really is not that much. From the moment I took the scalpel I started sweating and my hand started shaking. I thought, “Uh, it looked much easier from the outside” and I tried to calm down and “Aaah, this is a person, what if I cut too much, or too little, and what if I don’t suture well and it gets infected, and what if, what if, what if…” Obviously Dr. G. was right there next to me monitoring every of my movements, giving me directions of what to do every moment, literally holding my hand as I did things. Without realizing, 20 minutes (that felt like an eternity) went by. And that’s it, the man can wear his flip-flop and go home. It’s amazing how altruistic the medical team was and how kindly they shared their experience and wisdom with me. Overall, they took the time and patience to teach me the very basics.
Throughout the mission, the mayors, their families and other citizens showed us unsurpassed hospitality. They accommodated us at their homes and cooked for us delicious and abundant food. They offered us snacks and drinks every moment while working. And took us to some unique places, such as to see the sunset in a field of windmills on the northern most tip of the Philippines, to ride a jeep on sand dunes, to hike the Burgos’ lighthouse and visit some cliffs in the area. Every morning when we were ready to leave the house, there was a van waiting to take us to the meeting point. All this is even more appreciated when you know in these villages everyday things that we take for granted, like morning coffee or flushing toilets, are luxuries they are forced to do without.
It is difficult to describe each of the small things so many people have done for us in such a short period of time. People will come up and thank us as if we were some sort of superheroes who come to save their world when we are giving out medicines, toothbrushes, dresses or teddy bears. But I felt kind of ashamed though, because I thought ‘Yes, we invested our time and money to come help. But within ten days we are destined to return to our world of wi-fi and continental breakfasts. Meanwhile, they stay living in the simplest way you can imagine.’ Those are the real superheroes to me.
Finally, the days came and went. We said goodbye with a bittersweet feeling, shaking hands and giving hugs to people we most likely won’t see again. Still, we personally felt content and accomplished for having participated in improving somebody’s lives and having met such wonderful people both from the M2H team and from the Filipino communities. I cannot help but smile when I think how thankful I am to these people for teaching me that we don’t need to speak the same language to help each other. And I get excited when I think of the gift that they have given to me: a large dose of humility.
C’est la vie. Give and take.