Humanitarian Relief in Tacloban, Philippines – Reflections
Reflections from Medical Camps
From Two Australian Team Members
Arriving at the airport in Tacloban, I saw flash back images of Kathy Novak, an SBS journalist originally from the Philippines, who had made a documentary on the disastrous typhoon and I was reminded of her description of 5-meter high waves. This same airport building still had no ceiling and there had been many casualties here. The question occupying my mind was – “what was ahead?” Driving along in the multi-cab was a strange and unreal experience, it was as if we were driving through endless scrap metal yards, a scene we strangely got used to very quickly.
The Sai Home was a 3-bedroom place with 2 bath/toilet rooms. There was no hot water, but we quickly grew to appreciate cooling off in the shower! It was so hot, both day and night. We all miraculously managed every day to have a shower and be ready to leave at 6:10 am for the Dulag medical camp.
Team on its way
The first encounter with our full team of 12 people was memorable, coming from various places around the world – Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, Norway, Austria and Italy. The AUM chant seemed to glue us together from the very first moment - a Sai family on a medical service mission. We all had various levels of professional and life experiences and we came from diverse cultural backgrounds, yet we worked together very well. After this first briefing we became occupied trying to adjust to the heat and the mosquito nets at night!
In the morning we chanted the Gayatri mantra together before leaving our oasis, the Sai Home, at 6:30 am. Driving out of Tacloban to Dulag, an hour drive south, we noted the numerous destroyed coconut palms and the debris everywhere. It was a painful reminder of the typhoon that had hit this place last year on the 8th of November. All along our route the devastation was obvious, most buildings without roofs, under repair. Entire buildings were flattened or gone completely with only part of concrete walls remaining. Piles of corrugated iron roofing and timber were sorted to separate out the possible reusable from the general debris. Also many UNICEF and other UN agencies donated tarpaulin roofs. This scene was repeated wherever we drove over the next few days, as it was so wide spread and far reaching. These poor people, their lives shattered and scattered so suddenly and completely by this typhoon Yolanda. It was also noticeable that many Catholic churches seemed already restored and pristinely painted.
Talking with Pruto, our driver, gave us a real sense of how extreme the situation had been. He was a retired agricultural engineer and explained that it would take 5-10 years for the replanted coconut trees to bear fruit again. He told us about his experience with the typhoon, how everyone in his family huddled together in their garage during the deafening storm with water up to their armpits, hoping and praying that it would pass soon. He shared lots of stories about the tragedy with a puzzling giggle. As a psychotherapist I am more used to tears or sorrowful faces ... we had very frank and interesting talks with Pruto on those daily trips. During the 5 days of the medical camp he was our informal cultural trainer!
Realities of the medical camp
On day one in San Jose, the first village of the medical and dental camp, the local health and government staff had already started preparing and setting up the registration process. We had to arrange the consultation tables, pharmacy and a counseling tent on a stage, amidst rubble and new building materials. There was a separate area under a large makeshift tarpaulin roof with rows of chairs for the villagers.
The small “pharmacy” truck was unloaded with boxes after boxes of medicines coming into our pharmacy via a human chain. It was up a few steps onto a stage area, which had no walls and on 3 sides large flapping tarpaulins.
We were still a bit disorganised on this first day and our pharmacy stock was slightly in disarray, yet we managed to dispense the medications with a smile. This was a big effort, considering that both Meg (an Australian social worker) and Julia (a German Eurythmic lecturer) did not have a medical background. The medical jargon, abbreviations and doses were challenging for them and as the only nurse I also struggled, being only part time engaged in nursing and specialised in palliative care. However, Dr. Sathya from Malaysia did a great job in coordinating the pharmacy in his endearing sweet and smiling manner. His logical and clear way of organising the supply made our work the next days much easier and by the end of the first day we felt more confident.
The tropical downpour in the afternoon created a logistical challenge with our cardboard boxes. But somehow we managed to keep most medications dry, well almost.... The local people were very sweet and smiled often, clearly grateful for the help. Their English with the American twang was surprising, yet again we became used to it very quickly. It was heartening to know that our team had helped 396 patients that first day!
As a psychotherapist I had some individual interventions, one with a young lady from a nearly village, who had ongoing stress issues and sleeping problems following typhoon Yolanda. She had not been affected directly, but she watched the high seas in Tacloban from afar and she was still anxious. It seemed that she had not unlocked from the typical vigilance in the anticipation of the disaster (disenfranchised grief). Educating her in our S.A.I. (stress alleviation intervention) relaxation exercise worked and it dropped her blood pressure afterwards.
The second lady had a courageous smile but also mentioned that she had trouble sleeping. She had given birth to 13 children (2 sets of triplets and 7 other children, including a set of stillborn twins). There were no grandparents or family nearby and her husband walked away after their agricultural business had been damaged. I thought that this was the reason for her stress. She felt however unsure about her breast operation (lumpectomy) that had been performed by a visiting US surgical medical team earlier in the year. Was she supposed to have follow-up treatment or was she OK now? Her soft smile seemed fatalistic.
I could only offer touch, my undivided attention, hope and a keen presence. It certainly put first world worries in Australia in perspective, particularly our expectations and sense of entitlement to ongoing treatment and after care.
A volunteer from Indonesia was coordinating the well-behaved crowd in his gentle smiling way. The pharmacy team, was complemented by several local nurses and midwives providing the medication to the local people and explaining the “what and when.” The doctors team: Thomas - -the kind and child-loving paediatrician from Germany; Dr. Ravi -- the ear, nose and throat specialist from Malaysia with his confident and experienced manner; Dr. Prem - -the jolly Malaysian GP; Dr. Varkha -- a female GP from Indonesia; the young Dr. Sathya -- GP from Malaysia; and Walter -- our gentle and meditative Austrian dentist. They were all so focused, empathic and loving, providing their medical expertise to all the families arriving every day.
As we continued our days in this rural area we observed the egalitarian way these gentle folk seem to operate, they truly made us feel very welcome. They told us about the complete strangers that had come from abroad after the typhoon to offer their help whilst they felt numb at the time. In many encounters people spontaneously told us their personal story with the typhoon. The second day was again amazing, firstly to see the medical site with the overhanging, bent and broken steel structures, puddles, rubble, etc. From a safety perspective clearly a bit of a nightmare, especially for all of us coming from risk adverse Western countries. Yet we all managed to create each day a safe and happy work environment.
It was a lovely feeling, being part of this group of such diverse personalities and nationalities. All being Sai devotees we were delighted to offer loving and selfless service as best as we could. We worked very well together in such a mixed group. The doctors were an inspiration to observe as they focused their loving attention on each individual or family. They managed to see an amazing number of people each day, a total of 2,095 patients over 5 days.
Some days, people in the outlying areas were collected by multi-cab and taken to the medical camp. Afterwards they returned home with their bag of free medications. Many had not seen a health professional for years! Our quiet and gentle dentist Walter saw 30-36 people for extractions every day. It was a joy to see him in action and not one tear was shed.
The waiting local people attended the group stress management education sessions during lunchtime. I would explain the 3 simple exercises and the people then readily joined in after an initial hesitation. This brief programme involved a muscle tensing and relaxing and a nostril breathing exercise as slowing down the breath results in slowing down the thoughts and worrying. This was followed by mindfulness and a focusing exercise by “handing over, silently saying Amen”. The Filipino people are openhearted and religious, so to delegate their stress to God is culturally appropriate. This public group session concluded with a laughter exercise, releasing the happy hormones, endorphins, that are produced in the body even if the laughter is fake. Most then smilingly walked away, imitating what they had just learned. Following the stress management exercise, Drs. Sathya, Thomas and Walter the dentist delivered a humorous yet serious information session on good nutrition, reduced alcohol intake, quitting smoking and dental care.
On day 4 in Tigbao we suddenly had a monsoon-like downpour and storm. The gusty winds caused the tarpaulin to flap and a bamboo support pole fell down with a crash. We noticed a sudden hush, in the waiting people; they all went quiet and the tension increased (fears about the cyclone resurfaced).
For Meg the highlight came in a mixed way, to prove herself on day 5 in Dulag. She felt reluctant and was lacking in confidence, to do an individual counseling session, despite a long career in social work . “A deep personal challenge,” as she put it. It was suggested that she could rely and trust on her caring, loving nature and her listening skills. She agreed and was very glad afterwards. It was a session with a lady who said that she could not sleep because she lies in bed worrying that something awful will happen to her husband and children. The interaction was very fruitful and special. The interpreter was not present at first but they managed to communicate. Meg held this lady’s hand and she felt such love and compassion for this woman. With the interpreter present she talked more about her experience with the typhoon, her fears, tension and inability to sleep. Acknowledging and validating her feelings, Meg described the wonderful observation of this lady’s face and body relaxing. Her breathing really slowed down during the alternating nostril breathing. The lady was happy and seemed more in control of her busy thoughts and stress. They parted with a loving hug.
In Another Devotee's Words
“It has been an incredible experience for me to see the scale of devastation and to hear people's stories. I am humbled and uplifted by their courage, positive attitudes and open heartedness. I felt grateful for this opportunity to participate in the Dulag medical camp. To see optimistic and hopeful, hand written slogans everywhere is such as an illustration of these people’s strength. Statements such as the following demonstrate the strong and resilient mentality of the Filipino people:
-“We, of Tacloban felt fear, grief and trauma but God saved us for a purpose and we will show how we can go forward.”
-“Rise up Tacloban, our roofs may have been blown off, our homes destroyed but we will rise again...!”
--“My learning from this profound experience is to love all and serve all, that is the way to divinity.”
A current of love seemed to wipe away the fatigue and the challenges during this camp. To concentrate on others and to express empathy for the villagers and children affected by this natural disaster felt expansive, healthy and mentally calming. My own insecurities and doubts seemed to be replaced with a notion that all my life experiences, learning, my faith and trust and my character were enough. Suffering and vulnerability seems to show in a similar way in all people and I was privileged to help and serve. Coming home I felt blessed, humbled and transformed with lots of memories of what I have gained from going to the Philippines. I continue to digest and process these significant events and pray that it may lead to more wisdom.
Feedback from Other Members
One of the team members asked most individuals about what their highlights of the camp were? Below were some of the answers:
-To watch the doctors, dentist and other practitioners touch the patients in such a loving way!
-See the audience enjoy the SAI relaxation and the responses to the laughter therapy session.
-To see everyone practice their skills and “crafts” in such a loving way..
-To observe the whole team cooperate and assist each other.
-To notice that the dentist prayed before every procedure yet served a large number of people every day.
-To come “home” every day to the small Sai Home and live together with each other in a calm and harmonious manner.
-To see the pediatrician hold up the baby and play with it.
-Sharing the daily medical and other stories.
-Hearing a local man from a remote area say that total strangers came to help them after the cyclone and thanking us!
-My own transformation, because as we arrived I struggled with my dislike and judgement. After 2 days God had answered my prayers and I could see good and feel love!
-To see the equalitarian way in which the team worked.
-To see how we handled many changes and different set ups and locations.
Reflection from Feeding Programs
One day after Narayana Seva, we returned home and sat down for lunch. Our lunch usually consists of the same food we cook and serve during the food service.
As we sat down and finished the food prayer, five boys about 7 to 19 years in age appeared at the gate of the Sai Home and knocked. I had never seen them before anywhere. Upon inquiry by our Sai Home helper, they replied they were hungry and wanted food. I invited them in. The temperature was about 105-110 F in the hot sun. I told them to come inside and sit down at a table in the back, a small area. I asked them to wash their hands and gave them a towel to dry up. They sat down, without talking.
We had enough food for two or three people. They were very hungry, and as they started eating a light rain started coming down, and we hurried them inside. They sat in a circle, cross-legged, like students at the Sai University in India. They shared the food equally among themselves, drank the water quietly, washed their hands and left. At the gate as they took leave, they turned and in one voice said ‘Salamat‘ (thank you). I never saw them again. In my heart, I felt that we must have served Bhagawan, who came to have lunch with us that day and brought us joy and happiness.
Reflections from a Sai Volunteer from USA
I’ve always prayed to Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba for the opportunity to serve as His instrument for whatever task He has chosen for me. By Swami’s grace, I was given the opportunity to travel to Haiti to be part of the disaster relief operations undertaken by the Sathya Sai International Organisation, Disaster Relief Committee. Subsequently, I was ecstatic to receive approval from the Disaster Relief Committee to participate in the humanitarian relief mission for those affected by typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban, Philippines.
I enjoyed meeting our loving Sai brothers and sisters in Manila and serving the needy in their company. Their love, devotion, sacrifice and commitment to serve the community were inspiring. In speaking with those affected by the typhoon, listening to their stories of survival and learning about how they are coping under adverse conditions was an eye opening experience. Each meeting allowed me to share love and positive thoughts and was amazed how the local community members were touched by our concern regarding their well being.
I was very happy to serve the typhoon-affected communities and am extremely grateful to Bhagawan for this opportunity.