Hawaii Extends Aloha to Philippines: Aloha Medical Mission in Tuguegarao City

This article was originally published in the Filipino Chronicle on March 8, 2014. Click here to view the PDF.

Heather Postema checks on a recovering patient

Heather Postema checks on a recovering patient

Hawai`I extends its aloha to the Philippines:
Aloha Medical Mission in Tuguegarao City

By: Deborah Tolentino Manog

It’s been fifteen years since my first and last visit to the Philippines when I was a little girl. This month I was blessed with the opportunity to return to my “ancestral homeland” and give back to my Filipino community through the Aloha Medical Mission.

Tuguegarao City People's General Hospital

Surgeries were done at Tuguegarao City People’s General Hospital.

A few days prior to my departure from Honolulu I met with the main coordinators of the mission and also veterans of the AMM’s international humanitarian services, Reverend Alex Vergara and Dr. Lisa Grininger. They had been planning this mission for over a year. Preparations included connecting with the Cagayan Valley Association of Hawai`I, Kapolei Rotary Club, Philippine National Red Cross, Rotary Club of Tuguegarao and the city’s political and medical leaders.

As I arrived at the HNL airport for the red eye flight, the check-in line for Philippines Airlines was jam packed with people. Resembling a page from a “Where’s Waldo” book, I spotted luggages, few and scattered, bearing the same white, square stickers that were stuck on mines. Emblazoned on the stickers with bold blue letters was “Aloha Medical Mission.” My heart grew faster and my palms began to sweat. Was I really about to fly to the Philippines and spend over a week with a bunch of strangers? What if they don’t like me?

Just then I was tapped on the shoulder by my colleague Bobby Bergonio who was almost hidden under all of the camera equipment, lights and tripods that our instructor insisted we bring. At that point I remembered that this mission was about the people we could help in the Philippines and all my prior worries disappeared.

Colorful tricycles sprawl the streets of Tuguegarao.

Colorful tricycles sprawl the streets of Tuguegarao.

After a flight delay, a grueling 11-hour non-stop flight, six-hour layover in Manila and yet another flight delay, we finally touched down in Tuguegarao City. The next morning we rose before dawn for a briefing during breakfast and group introductions. Out of a group of over 20 volunteers, I discovered that not everyone had a medical degree. Besides doctors and nurses, other volunteers had backgrounds in accounting, engineering, computers and ministry.

At 16 years old, Jaime Hattler was the youngest AMM volunteer. She originally wanted to come to the Philippines after the destructive Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the country and decided to accompany her mother and pediatrician, Dr. Maggie Smeale on the trip.

(L to R) Jaime Hattler, Deborah Manog, Heather Postema

Here I am sandwiched between volunteers Jaime Hattler and Heather Postema.

Heather Postema, a registered nurse and one of the first-time AMM volunteers mentioned that she had joined the mission on an impulse. She was recently recruited by another volunteer who was a patient of hers at a Hawaii hospital.

“I thought she was going to ask for more pain meds but instead she made me promise to come on this mission to the Philippines and I’m glad I said yes,” Postema said.

On the first day of the mission, Bobby and I were faced with toughest challenge yet: crossing the street. We were centered in the heart of downtown Tuguegarao, where the city streets are narrow and bustling with colorful and aggressive tricycles. We looked left, right then left again. If we took too long to cross the street then drivers would speed towards us and stop to ask if we needed a ride. After a deep breath, we took our first, independent steps into the street. I tried to stroll along, as if I wasn’t petrified with each tread but Bobby grabbed my hand and pulled me along as he dashed across the intersection. Exhale. We made it.

Hundreds of people lined up on the first day of the mission.

Hundreds of people lined up on the first day of the mission.

After my heart rate dropped back to normal I noticed the near-chaotic scene in front of me. Hundreds of people were gathered in front of the entrance to the parish hall as local volunteers tried to settle down the crowd and organize the masses. Across the street, volunteers were still moving boxes from the hotel to the hospital and meeting the local hospital staff. Volunteers Donald Wocasek Jr. and Vernon Vergara even fixed a broken cautery machine that was essential for major surgeries.

“The first day was definitely a little bit hectic, just sorting everything out, but I’m definitely having a good time,” said Shaun Lampe, registered nurse and first-time volunteer with AMM.

And he was right. By the second day, everyone had figured out how to pitch in wherever help was needed, whether the task was to act as a translator, run to the hardware store and buy scissors, distribute medicine packets or just to hold a patient’s hand during surgery.

Some of the local OR nurses take a break to smile for the camera

Some of the local OR nurses take a break to smile for the camera.

As documenters of the trip, Bobby and I tried to shoot footage of every aspect of the mission. We recorded video behind the usual closed doors of the operating room, talked to a patient before and after surgery, and interviewed some of the AMM volunteers as well as some of the hospital’s doctors and nurses. Lampe was impressed by the local staff and how well they worked together with the mission’s volunteers.

“They’re so awesome, they’re happy to be here and they’re real good, they really operate as a team,” Lampe said.

Early in the week, everyone could already feel the camaraderie growing between the volunteers.

“Look at us, we just knew each other for a few days but we have that attachment with each other because we have a common goal, to serve the people” said Lolita Ching, registered nurse and AMM Board Member.

Shaun Lampe, Dr. Lisa Grininger and Lolita Ching pose with Alberto Buquel after he received a free prosthetic arm

Shaun Lampe, Dr. Lisa Grininger and Lolita Ching pose with Alberto Buquel after he received a free prosthetic arm

Although Dr. Edmund Chong had been to several medical missions before, this was his first time with AMM. He didn’t know any of the volunteers prior to coming on the trip but felt that he was immediately welcomed into the group.

“I’m not sure if it’s because of the Filipino culture or what, they tried to be very inclusive. I felt very comfortable, fairly quickly,” Chong said.

As I met more and more people throughout the week, my heart grew fonder for this community, who I felt were “my people.” I met two children with tumors on their forehead, the latter of whom was also deaf and had been abandoned by her mother. I witnessed a grown woman cry as she sat up on the operating table after her surgery. I spoke to nurses who were not getting paid but worked full time anyway for the experience. I heard a baby’s first cry as he came into the world through an emergency cesarean section. I even heard a man speak in his native Ibanag tongue, say to one of the mission’s doctors, “if you did not come, I would have died.”

Dr. Amelia Jacang, Victoria Wocasek, Maggie Smeale and Heather Postema care for the newborn baby

Dr. Amelia Jacang, Victoria Wocasek, Maggie Smeale and Heather Postema care for the newborn baby.

I also witnessed a man write his name for the first time after having lost his hand was crushed in a textile mill machine. After he was fitted with a prosthetic arm he made the motion of eating with his new arm and said “I feel whole again.”

By the end of the mission I was emotionally and mentally drained but it didn’t bother me because I was just happy to help them.

Dr. Rebecca Sawai described her first medical mission as a “reset button for your values.”

“To help people who have so little with what little I can do seems to make a big difference” said Sawai. “And I think it would make a lot of people feel really worthwhile.”