Doctors tell of victims' strength in Philippines

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Two married doctors from the Philippines, who provided medical care in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, said Friday basic necessities such as water, electricity and hygienic items are still very much needed in the country's central region devastated by the fierce winds and tsunami-like storm surges.

Philip L. Palencia, an orthopedic surgeon, and his wife, Liza Mary Palencia, an internist, said during a visit to Brother's Brother Foundation on the North Side that they were overwhelmed both by the devastation and the resilience of those affected by one of the strongest typhoons on record.

The physicians, who are in town visiting relatives in Mt. Lebanon, spoke in the Brother's Brother warehouse where they were surrounded by hundreds of pallets of medicine, clothing and hygienic supplies that will be shipped to the Philippines. The aid is part of the foundation's work with the Philippine American Medical Society of Western Pennsylvania to provide short- and long-term assistance to the Philippines, where the Nov. 8 typhoon killed more than 5,220 people and injured more than 27,363. More than 1,600 are still missing.

Ten days after the typhoon hit the country's eastern seaboard, the Palencias were among a group of four doctors, four nurses and 72 aid workers sponsored by the Red Cross and the Philippines Department of Social Welfare to travel the 375 miles east from Camarines Norte province to devastated Basey Township in Eastern Samar province.

The trip, which normally might take 12 hours along single and double-lane roads, many made of dirt, instead took two full days, including a 12-hour delay getting a ferry between islands, Dr. Philip Palencia said.

Upon arrival in Basey, his wife said, they found the seaside community of 2,100 people without water or electricity, "completely in ruins but the people all had smiles to see us." Forty residents there are confirmed dead and 159 remain missing, some of them likely still lying beneath rubble. The typhoon was so strong it demolished 500 structures and damaged another 119 buildings in the community.

Most of the residents are living in a partially demolished school. The medical team set up a makeshift facility inside a partially destroyed church. There was no roof and many of the walls were damaged or missing altogether, but still hanging as if nothing around it had occurred was a large crucifix with the figure of Jesus Christ on it.

"It gave them hope," said Dr. Liza Palencia, who likewise expressed awe at the sight.

So lacking in resources was the medical team that they had to enlist villagers to hold aloft intravenous fluid bags because IV stands were not available. The medical team treated 656 cases for open wounds and puncture wounds, some with pieces of wood propelled by the winds still imbedded in skin. In addition to suturing and treating residents for infections, they also saw patients with cellulitis, pneumonia and diarrhea.

The disaster aid team set up a generator, and residents flocked to it to recharge cell phones so they could contact relatives elsewhere to report that they were alive.

The medical team treated as many people as they could until the sun set when they could see no more. The Palencias are still moved by their experience.

"They've lost everything, but it is overwhelming how strong and determined they are. You can always find blessings in adversity. The people are so amazing, they were worried we were going to go hungry and they offered us what little food they had," Dr. Liza Palencia marveled.

"There are so many people affected, so many people still in need. We are overwhelmed by the support of the international and local communities. Nothing is small; all the aid helps."


Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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