It has always been a dream of mine to volunteer and give back to communities in the developing world, where I grew up. I was born and raised in the Philippines and was shocked and heartbroken when I saw news reports about the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan — a megastorm that ravaged my country on Nov. 8, 2013. Seeing thousands of people, especially children, suffering and in desperate need was hard to watch, so when the opportunity came for me, a registered nurse at Inova Emergency Care Center (Fairfax), to do a medical mission with Project HOPE, I signed up without hesitation for my first experience in humanitarian work.
I traveled with 17 other medical volunteers to the remote town of Tapaz several days before Christmas and stayed for about three weeks. Tapaz is a remote town two hours from Roxas City, the capital of Capiz Province on the island of Panay. This rural area is surrounded by mountains, rivers and rice fields. The population is poor and the primary source of income is farming. During our drive from Roxas City airport going to Tapaz we saw a lot of toppled trees and many buildings and houses destroyed by the typhoon. Water supply comes from deep wells. Some households and facilities have a water pump system but most have to draw well water manually. The schools and hospital where Project HOPE conducted medical outreach did not have running water; instead they used buckets and filled them with water to use for the whole day. Although there were occasional blackouts during the day, we were very fortunate that electricity was back on when we arrived in Tapaz because we were informed that the previous rotation of Project HOPE volunteers did not have any electricity during their stay. At night, however, the streets are dark and quiet because there are no lamp posts or streetlights.
Some days we ventured to different villages to assess health needs and care for patients in very remote areas far from the Tapaz clinic and hospital. I helped with registration, took vital signs and assessment, served as an interpreter for Project HOPE’s medical doctors and volunteers, gave medications, and took patients’ height and weight. Since the typhoon struck, Project HOPE volunteers have provided care to over 5,480 people in clinics and hospitals and performed about 435 surgeries.
I will always remember one of my patients in the Philippines — a lovely 10-year-old boy who came to the clinic with his parents because of a rash with fever. The mother said her son had been running a fever since the night before and the medicine she was giving him was not helping. She said her son had no appetite and vomited on the way to the clinic. A Project HOPE doctor examined the patient while I translated. We gave medicine for the fever and the rash and monitored the patient for a couple hours until his symptoms improved. The clinic was very small and they didn’t have any stretchers or beds for patients because there really was no room for them. So we had the patient sit on a chair with his parents as we monitored his condition. We also provided teaching to the mother regarding fever control and proper dosing of antipyretics, because when the patient came to the clinic he was wearing a long-sleeve jacket in 90-degree weather and the mother has been giving the patient the incorrect dose of Paracetamol. After about two hours, his symptoms had significantly improved and he was able to tolerate fluids and crackers. His fever went down, the rash looked better, and he no longer complained of itching.
The parents were very thankful that we let them stay in the clinic to monitor their son’s condition. They didn’t want to go home until his symptoms improved because they lived so far away from the clinic, about one hour away by motorcycle, and also didn’t want to spend their money on transportation by going back and forth.
I hope to do more humanitarian work in the future and I will be forever grateful to my fellow Project HOPE volunteers for spending their holiday season in the Philippines helping so many people who truly needed medical care. Instead of spending quality time with their family and loved ones on Christmas and New Year’s, they selflessly chose to be on the other side of the world to make a difference for people who needed help. I am honored to have worked with them and very proud to be part of such a wonderful team.
I will never forget the hospitality and appreciation of the people of Tapaz. Every time we did medical outreach at the schools, we were offered food. Even when we told them we had our own lunches, they still went out of their way to bring food and serve us. On Christmas day, we took a walk to one of the villages and passed by a family who were eating outside their house. This family didn’t have much, their house was made of wood and bamboo and the rice cakes and sticky rice that they were eating was just enough for the whole family, but they very kindly offered us a bite and insisted that we try it. It’s amazing how the people who practically had nothing still shared the very little that they had with others.
Fairfax resident Laarni Patotoy, a registered nurse at Inova Fairfax, is a medical volunteer with Virginia-based Project HOPE. Project HOPE continues to conduct medical missions in the Philippines, working with local health authorities to help rebuild the health infrastructure in remote areas. It has also shipped donated medicines, generators, First-Aid kits and surgical equipment.