I spent my 31st wedding anniversary apart from my lovely wife, Debbie. In fact, we were 6,642 miles apart. I was in Tacloban in the Philippines and she was at home in Bremerton, WA. It's actually more confusing than that since I started celebrating it a day before her due to the time zone shift. So, in reality, I missed her a ton on our anniversary which lasted more than a day and a half.
We take so much for granted in the US. For example, having ice in a drink. Doing that in this situation can end you up on the toilet for days. Another thing that we so frequently take for granted is communication. Today, I was supposed to go the airport to pick up one of the guys from International Medical Corps. I didn't know what he looked like but I knew that he was supposed to come in on a helicopter from Cebu. I got there early to try and figure out where to find him because my window was very tight before I needed to be back at RTR Hospital for deployment by helicopter this morning to a remote area on west coast of the island. The airport in and of itself is a disaster. Many of the buildings were destroyed by the typhoon and now it is overrun with military aircraft from around the world. There are planes and helicopters from the Philippines, Japan, Australia, the USA and others. Some of the commercial airlines are also starting to fly again. Police and military folks with guns are everywhere. Armed with only my ID badge and a purposeful look, I walked right past the barricades and out onto the Tarmac where it was about a gazillion degrees hot. Pacing around, I waited and waited while I was being slow roasted. Due to time constraints, I eventually had to leave. I was unable to reach the guy I was supposed to pick up. I jumped back into the car with my driver and hurried back to RTR to jump on their helicopter with the rest of our team. I found out later that the person I was supposed to pick up was actually delayed an hour. Somehow, we were never notified. In the meantime, I was a few minutes late and so our helicopter took off to deliver some other folks somewhere and we were bumped. While we waited, however, Phillip's staff fed us breakfast at the big house. There is absolutely nothing like fresh mangos in the Philippines with homemade pancakes! We are so blessed.
It wasn't long before we lifted off in the helicopters and were on our way. The view was stunning and sickening at the same time. When I'm working with my boots on the ground, the smells, sights and sounds can be gut wrenching at times. That granular view of a disaster, where I usually serve, assaults the senses, grabs the heart and challenges the mind. The aerial view of the disaster, however, elevates your perspective in a matter of seconds from the raw and granular to the expansive and completely overwhelming. The destruction was massive. It looked like a tremendous shockwave had just knocked everything down or blown it to bits. From the air, it's easy to wonder how anyone survived. Thankfully, on the ground, one discovers the determination to live.
As we flew over downtown and then over the port it was rare to see a building with the roof intact. We flew past Phillip's yacht compete with helipad. I'm so grateful that Phillip has put his resources at the disposal of relief workers. His yacht is being used to ferry patients 10 miles out to the Chinese hospital ship. His willingness to pitch in and help is helping thousands of folks.
Arriving on the west side of the island at Tabango by helicopter is tremendously exciting. As we circled over the school, we could see hundreds of people gathered below enthusiastically waving at us. We were the first outside team since the Typhoon hit nearly three weeks ago. They started jumping and cheering as we touched down. As the blades stopped spinning, people crowded around us wanting to shake our hands. Children ran up to hug us. They had no idea who we were but, for a moment, we were famous. We set up shop in the school and unpacked our "pharmacy" which included two large rolling bags and a few boxes. We asked for volunteers that could speak English and it wasn't long before we were open and ready for our first patient. We airlifted two patients out. One was a girl with a huge oral mass and the other was a girl with a wound on her leg from a flying sheet of metal roofing during the storm. It was about 6 inches long and about 3 inches wide. They didn't have any of the right supplies to care for the wound so they just opened capsules of amoxicillin and poured the powder onto the wound. (Not something I would suggest you try at home!) Miraculously, the wound didn't appear to be infected so we were able to airlift her to the hospital to have the wound closed. If they weren't able to do it at the hospital in Tacloban, she would be airlifted to the Chinese hospital ship for surgery.
As we were seeing patients, I was sweating like a wild man. Our local volunteers were laughing at my inability to stay dry in the heat. KC, one of my interpreters, grabbed a fan and started fanning me to keep the sweat out of my eyes. I felt like royalty. Well, not really. I felt like a sweaty white guy. Michelle, Sharron, Karl (our Filipino Medical Intern) and I saw 380 patients today!
Exhausted, we loaded back into the helicopters and headed back to RTR Hospital. The kitchen was still open when we got there. The kitchen staff was eager to see us because we always sing with them. We had a blast belting out a couple of Christmas songs with them this evening. Deck the Halls! You should have seen their eyes and heard their laughs when I did a little coin magic for them. Even the elderly women that do the rice got involved. I wish you could have been there with us.
After dinner, JAS grabbed me to let me know that he had a SIM card for my iPhone! Someone had given it to him and it had some time available on it as part of the bundle. The card was too big for my iPhone so I spent about 20 minutes trimming it down with my knife. I didn't have a paperclip to open the slot so I had to use a staple. I finally got it to fit but I never could get it to work. I was only able to view the E network and not 2G so I was not able to set it up. Apparently, something was wrong with the towers. Bummer. I was really hoping to have better communication. By far, communication has been our biggest challenge this trip.
After dinner, I went across the street to see if the Mayor was there. I was invited by Phillip to join them for dessert. The Mayor will pick me up tomorrow at 5PM to speak to all of his Department Heads. I can hardly wait!
Flying back to base in the helicopters today, I couldn't help pondering the view below. I wasn't surprised to see thousands and thousands of coconut trees laying parallel to each other after being knocked down by the record setting winds. What struck me, however, were the trees that were still standing. As we flew by at over 200 MPH, I couldn't help but wonder what was different about those trees. Why don't they get knocked down? I suspect that it has a whole lot to do with the quality of the soil and the depth of the roots. Obviously, these things have to be in place before the storm strikes. Once again, these types of observation make me take a look inward. I'm the only one that is responsible for my soil. I need to be sure it is weeded, fertilized and watered. Are you ready for your storm? By the way, it's hard to see your blind-spots. Ask a trusted friend if they see any weeds in your life that might choke out your roots and weaken your resistance to the wind. How's your dirt?