A five day medical camp was held in Dulag, a poor rural district, an hour drive south from our Sai Home in Tacloban – an area much impacted by typhoon Yolanda with the eye of the storm passing over the town. The Sathya Sai international team consisted of 5 medical practitioners, 1 dentist, 1 nurse/psychologist and 5 general volunteers. Every day the team serviced a different area and a total of 2095 patients were seen, including 179 dental patients. All patients received free medical and/or dental care and free medication.
Here are personal reflections of two Australian volunteers.
Preparation, a time for uncertainty and doubt, even fear, of what we may or could encounter. As a nurse my concerns were about wounds, malnutrition and perhaps life threatening incidents. As a psychotherapist I was worried about the traumatic impact of the typhoon on the patients. Also the sad and upsetting stories of the people and its impact these may have on us.
As a spiritual aspirant I was a bit unsure if I could hold on to my favourite antidote to worrying – the notion that I am not the doer!
Whilst travelling from Adelaide to Manila, I was practising mind control by reciting the mantra as a way to at least distract the mind from the worrying thoughts.
Manila and Tacloban
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 ocean waves. This same airport building still has no ceiling and there had been many casualties here. Driving along in the multi cab was 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.
Team on its way
The first encounter with our full team of 12 people was memorable, coming from various countries – 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.
Driving out of Tacloban to Dulag we noted the damaged coconut palms and numerous debris everywhere. Along our route the devastation was obvious, buildings were flattened or gone completely with only part of concrete walls remaining. Piles of corrugated iron roofing and timber – 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, completely by this typhoon Yolanda. It was also noticeable that many Catholic churches seemed already restored and pristinely painted.
Realities of the 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 counselling 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 waiting for medical assistance.
The small ‘pharmacy’ truck was unloaded with 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.
Being the first day, we were still organising the patient flow and the pharmacy stock was slightly in disarray, yet we managed to dispense the medications with a smile. 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 medicines in 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 grand parents or family nearby and her husband worked away after their agricultural business had been damaged by the typhoon. I thought that this was the reason for her stress. However, she felt 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.
Danesh, a general volunteer from Indonesia was coordinating the well behaved crowd in his gentle smiling way. The pharmacy team, Meg, Julia, Sylvia and Janine, 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 Ravindran – 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 focussed, empathic and loving, providing their medical expertise to all the families arriving every day.
Our return to the Sai Home in Tacloban felt soothing and familiar. After devotional singing, a debrief/planning meeting and dinner, we needed a rest following a satisfying first full day of the medical camp. During the following days we recharged the batteries here with meaningful sharing, stories, dinners, laughter, singing and silence.
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 focussed their loving attention on each individual or family. They managed to see an amazing number of people each day, a total of 2095 patients over 5 days.
The cheerful Filipino people impressed and inspired us all, they were so open hearted. It was easy to engage with them despite their unfortunate circumstances and we admired their resilience.
It was almost magical how we would arrive at a new location each day and transform these primitive settings into a super functional Sathya Sai medical clinic.
The group stress management education session during lunchtime were attended by the waiting local people. I would explain the 3 simple exercises and the people then readily joined in after an initial hesitation. This brief program 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 focussing 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, Doctors delivered a humorous yet serious information session on good nutrition, reduced alcohol intake, quitting smoking and dental care.
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, despite a long career in social work, to do an individual counselling session – 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 (catastrophising due to trauma). The interaction was very fruitful and special. The interpreter was not present at first but they managed to communicate. Meg held this ladies 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 in combination with the SAI relaxation exercises Meg described the wonderful observation of this ladies face and body relaxing visible and also her breathing really slowing 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 Meg’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.”