BACOLOD, PHILIPPINES – How many of us take for granted a band-aid in our bathroom cupboard; a quick visit to a walk-in clinic; Tylenol when we have a headache; food when we’re hungry, toilet paper, running water, soap; or even privacy in the most vulnerable situations?
Our little trio has learned that what we take for granted in Canada are true luxuries in places like the Philippines, where we spend part of our annual vacation helping people less fortunate than ourselves.
During our medical/surgical missions to this small island in the Philippines, we have encountered situations that have touched us deeply, traumatized us and forever changed our outlook on life.
Here is a brief look at what three nurses from Toronto encountered and achieved on our recent journey as part of the 2011 medical team that went to Southeast Asia:
The St Michael’s Urban Angels is a group of medical and non-medical volunteers who travel to the Philippines annually to provide ophthalmic and medical outreach services to the disadvantaged people in and around Bacolod, a city of 2.5 million people of which many cannot afford what we consider the basic necessities of life.
Above: Canadian medical personal spend their vacation time helping others.
We work as part of the cataract surgical team and also as medical outreach volunteers with the Urban Angels organization.
For eight days we worked long hours to ensure we were able to see as many patients as possible.
At first, the numbers seemed daunting due to the fact that two of the three very crucial machines needed to perform the procedure were broken thanks to poor storage facilities and humidity at the hospital.
But you learn quickly that on short missions, with small NGO’s who have little funding, you just have to get used to things not going as planned.
In the end, we performed 66 eye surgeries — 46 of which were cataract extractions. We distributed 10,000 pairs of eyeglasses. Our outreach team saw 8,770 patients and performed 259 minor surgeries.
The long hours paid off because we helped so many people.
Above: Our nurses spend long hours in operating rooms and their only reward is a hug from a grateful patient.
Even the people we passed in the corridors — they serve as rooms in big city provincial hospitals like the one in Bacolod — became very special to us. Patients of all ages, no matter how much they were suffering, greeted us with smiles that melted our hearts.
On our last day in Bacolod, we did what we do best — set out on a massive shopping spree; buying everything in sight to the point we thought we might have to remortgage our homes. But in the end, the bill amounted to just $300 Cdn. We bought pillows, bed sheets, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, body wash, underwear, pajamas and snacks — not for us, but for the lovely people we grew to know at the hospital. For the children we bought stuffed animals, toys, colouring books and crayons to help pass the time in the sad and monotonous environment they were stuck.
That was the day we will never forget. The appreciative smiles flashed by the patients were an unforgettable and rewarding way to end our successful mission to the Philippines.
Finally, it was time for some rest and relaxation.
The team set off from Bacolod on a two hour ferry ride followed by a six hour, cockroach-infested bus trip in search of sun, sea and sand at a Philippines resort town.
But just when our eyes were getting heavy and everyone was being tranquilized by their iPod play list, the bus came to a jarring halt in the middle of a two-lane highway.
Up ahead, we saw a transport truck jack knifed across the highway blocking both lanes. Thinking this was something that had occurred hours earlier, a few members of the team jumped off the bus to get some air and snap a few photographs of the incident.
Above: The Canadians stop to help victims of a horrific traffic accident.
As we approached the truck, however, it was obvious by the thick black smoke billowing out from beneath and the still rotating tires that this horrific crash had just happened.
Looking at the horrified faces of the bystanders, the team quickly realized that our medical mission was not over yet.
One look inside the truck cab shocked us — the broken and bloody bodies of four men were hanging out of the crumpled truck that had smashed into a bamboo house and ripped it off its foundation.
With that, members of the team closest to the scene motioned and yelled to our colleagues on the bus for help.
Within seconds, 50 medical and non-medical support staff were triaging the victims and providing whatever help we could.
After our doctors and nurses accompanied the freed men to the hospital, we set out to find the owner of the destroyed home. She told us that just minutes before the truck hit the house, she had moved three small children out back.
The children were safe but the woman’s humble bamboo home was destroyed.
We couldn’t leave her like this. So we returned to the bus and asked our colleagues to anti up with donations to help the woman repair her shattered life.
The response was overwhelming. Our colleagues shelled out large portions of their vacation allowances and we ended up collecting enough money to help the family rebuild their home.
The proud villagers at first declined the money but we insisted. They called our team their “angels” as we boarded the bus, downed some nerve-calming brew, and continued our journey.
(NOTE: Sadly, three of the four men involved in the truck accident did not survive the crash.)
With mixed emotions we finally reached our holiday destination, Boracay Island, a prime vacation spot in the Philippines offering a range of accommodation from hostels to opulent hotels, great food and a party scene with few equals. After all that had happened to us in the past couple of weeks, we were ready to party and even the threat of rain could not dampen our spirits.
Waking up each morning to the sound of the blue green water lapping the shores and taking long walks along the endless white-sand beaches soon put us in a relaxed frame of mind.
Above: Our nurses take time to relax and party afterwards.
The island offers something for everyone, including snorkeling, scuba diving, jet-skiing, island hopping, sunset cruises, and kite surfing, and there was never a shortage of hour-long massages on the beach that cost less than a Starbucks latte back home.
This is heaven!
The islanders on Boracay are friendly and our nights spent at the main party spot — Juice Bar — were memorable.
We always like to spend a few nights after a mission winding down — we even splurged and had a fabulous meal at the island’s top hotel, the Shangri-La.
Boracay was just what the doctor ordered.
After our unforgettable time in the Philippines we set off for home via Tokyo where we had set aside a few days for sightseeing, sake and sushi.
We landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport at 2:10 p.m. on March 11, 2011. What greeted us there shook our world!
To find out more about the Urban Angels project, or to find out how you can donate to this very worthy cause, please go to www.urban-angels.org