Typhoon Haiyan killed 6,000 people when it roared through the midsection of the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013. Winds climbed as high as 190 miles an hour, and the storm surge that followed — water as high as 25 feet — flattened cities, small towns and fishing villages. The homes of more than 4 million people were damaged or destroyed.
Cora-Ann O’Regan and Kati Tannous, Federation of Nurses/UFT members who work at Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center, were the two selected from among the 300 UFT members who responded to the union’s appeal for medical volunteers to help in the relief effort. The two young nurses used their vacation time for the two-week mission, where they treated the sick and injured at makeshift health clinics organized by Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit that provides free medical care in developing countries hard-hit by natural disasters.
After an arduous two-day journey, the nurses arrived in January in Roxas City, on the coast of the Philippine island of Panay, at a small airport that no longer had a roof, only a giant plastic tarp riddled with holes. “It looked like an abandoned building,” O’Regan said. “The air was hot and humid, and there was the odor of garbage burning everywhere.”
The pair was placed in a local motel because the apartment that had served as a base for earlier volunteers was now off-limits after being overrun by rats.
Every morning a RAM van transported the nurses to remote villages in the jungle-like mountains, a ride on bumpy, dirt roads that took up to two hours, with stops along the way to pick up local nurses and translators.
Roxas City, which still had visible signs of damage from the typhoon, was nonetheless a functioning city of 150,000 with cars and people and restaurants. In the villages in the interior, the nurses encountered endemic poverty that underlay and predated the typhoon — making it infinitely worse.
Seven of the nine villages they visited had no electricity or running water, some because it was knocked out by the typhoon, others because they didn’t have it to begin with. Tannous recalled one elderly woman sitting next to her tin-roofed bamboo house that was leaning to one side where it had been struck by heavy winds.
The clinics were often set up in school courtyards. When villagers arrived, they registered at a table staffed by the local health department, took a number and then patiently waited, sometimes standing for hours on end with only an umbrella to protect them from the blazing sun. Tables were set up for up to six doctors, each with a physician’s assistant and a nurse, and a chair for the patient. The medical team would interview each patient, do a thorough medical exam and then give the patient a prescription to bring to a long table stacked with crates of vitamins, antibiotics and other medication that served as the pharmacy.
The first day, the nurses saw a whopping 440 patients; in the days that followed, the numbers ranged from 200 to 300, O’Regan said.
The residents had all manner of ailments, many not directly related to the typhoon. High blood pressure was common, the result of a diet that relies heavily on fish preserved with salt. “The No. 1 killer is stroke, because of high blood pressure,” Tannous said.
The pair also suspected that many residents were suffering from post-traumatic stress. Many told the nurses that their ailments, such as peptic ulcers, dated from November, when the typhoon struck.
In each village, a family cooked a meal for the nurses, mostly chicken stews with coconut milk. The villagers showed their appreciation in other ways, too. “People would ask to hug us, take a picture, or just stand next to us,” said Tannous. “Even after they had their medical checkup, they stayed around to talk and take pictures.”
For O’Regan, who grew up in Bay Ridge, this was her first trip to Asia. “It’s a humanitarian mission to do something outside of my comfort zone,” she said.
Tannous, by contrast, is an old hand at relief work: She has volunteered in Sierra Leone and Kenya on public health projects and clinics, and in her native Syria, she grew up watching her mother, a family physician, make her rounds in remote villages.
The mission to the Philippines, however, was unlike any she had been on. “You have this country hit by a typhoon and you’re expecting people to be run down, but we met people who were genuinely happy,” Tannous said.
Back at their motel in Roxas City, Tannous and O’Regan would take walks along the beach, where families lived in bamboo houses. Children would come out to walk with them. “One boy was flying a homemade kite,” Tannous said. “He was having a blast. They were happy we were there.”
Both nurses said that they were grateful for the chance to go on this unforgettable journey. “I’m just thankful,” O’Regan said. “Without the UFT, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.”