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First Time Fil-Am Nurse Volunteer at a Philippine Medical Mission: A Kaleidoscope of Emotions

By Alwyn Galela, PTA, BSN-RN, MPH(c)
PNAO President-Elect
May 5, 2016


There are a few activities that empower a Fil-Am nurse to the organic reasons for the vocation. The dizzying grind of everyday work, not to mention the exhausting rigors that comes with nursing responsibilities, leads to one to elude the passion of nursing mandate. As a first generation Fil-Am nurse, nothing compares to the surge of energy and new-found fervor in the excitement of caring and helping like joining a medical/surgical mission to the Philippines.

In Spring 2016, I had the opportunity to join the 35th medical mission sponsored by the Association of Philippine Physicians of Ohio (APPO) in conjunction with the Dalubhasaan ng Lungsod ng San Pablo (DLSP) and the local government. It was a 5-day medical and surgical mission held in San Pablo, Laguna on February.

It was but fitting to begin the Mission by celebrating a mass at the Padre Pio National Shrine in Santo Tomas, Batangas en-route to the San Pablo, Laguna. It was an appropriate prelude to the noble task ahead of us. In fact, it proved to be such a surreal experience when the parish priest’s homily that Sunday was aptly about health and responsibility. It is almost astonishing to hear a homily with the words cholesterol, diet and exercise in a packaged together. With no less than 90 volunteers from APPO and the local organizations, we receive the message and, seemingly, a send-off blessing as we partake in this Mission.

Being a Sunday, the two buses we were riding had a hard time traversing the narrow asphalt road to the Shrine due to traffic congestion. In fact, the 30-minute bus ride from the National Shrine to San Pablo ended up being a two-hour trip. For a balikbayan like me, I considered it an opportunity to enjoy the countryside backdrop of the bus trip plus the smiling faces of our kababayans as they engaged in their mundane activities along the road. The luxuries of the US and the convenience of States-side lifestyle was, suddenly, a thing of the past. I remember one of the APPO volunteers, a Polish nationality and first time visitor to the Philippines, needed to be oriented to the different way of doing things. By the end of the Mission, he became accustomed to using the stairs to his third floor room since there was no elevator in the hotel where we were staying, using the electric fan when the air-conditioner started having problems (almost on a regular basis) in his room, timing his morning showers before the hot water reserve runs out and having a ready sanitizer at hand since running water is not always a guarantee.

I was assigned to the triage department with four other APPO volunteers. There was also a group of local nurses helping with triage. I was impressed on how labor intensive this Mission was. A command post was set-up to assist. And thanks to good planning on the part of the local counterpart organization, the volunteers were easily identifiable by their lanyards with their name and designated roles. They were readily available to help both the patients and APPO volunteers. I mean, from accompanying patients to the next station in queue to serving coffee and snacks and anywhere in between. No task was too small for them. They readily provided service, and with a smile too. In fact, one of the local volunteers told me that they do not mind performing tasks that is outside their assigned roles. Everyone was ready to be a constructive part of the Mission!

During my volunteer in major surgery, I was moved by my conversation with a mother of a child who suffered from a tumor in the head since birth. It was about the size on a 1 Philippine peso coin. She said that part of the head is hairless and that it is hard and round when the child is standing but flattens when laying down. When the child was still an infant, the local doctors said that operation was optional since the tumor was benign. However, the child fell on it at two years old and started complaining about discomfort and being miserable. The cost of the operation to remove the tumor was estimated to be around 50,000 Philippine pesos. Not being able to afford it, the Mission came at the right time, she claimed. She started to cry and was very thankful for without the Mission this operation might not have been performed due to their meager financial resources.

I also talked to a patient, a retired school teacher of 37 years, who just hard hernia operation a few hours ago. He had three children but one died. He has a daughter who graduated as a nurse but could not find work and takes care of his wife who has diabetes. Just before ending our conversation, under his breath, he mentioned about his frustration on not being able to bring his 3-year old grandson to the Mission. He said that he feels sorry for his grandson. He said that his grandson sometimes takes as long as a week in-between bowel movements. Just after birth, the local doctors said that his grandson needed an operation to his bowels. However, the boy’s parents did not have the financial resources to pay for the operation. The mother works but do not make enough money. The father went to Korea to work in a factory that soon closed. He did not go back and stayed there illegally to find opportunities that was not available in the Philippines. He does not have a regular source of income.

However, there were also light moments during the Mission. During one of our early morning trips from the hotel to the hospital site, we had a conversation with Kuya George, one of our volunteer-guides. During the light and friendly exchanges, there was a debate on what is the meaning of dalubhasaan in DLSP. We figured that dalubhasaan is the tagalog translation of university in English. Then, we wondered why did they not use pamantasan, which is also tagalog translation of university. Before we could explore further, we arrived at our destination. It left me wondering the whole day. Another morning trip conversation was with an ROTC volunteer who was also one of the volunteer-guides. The ROTC volunteers were in their full military regalia during the Mission. She was a student at DLSP. We asked her what she wants to be after college. She says that she wanted to be a soldier. We looked at each other in amazement. She was so petite and very unassuming presence that it was hard to think of her barking commands, much less be involved in soldiering. She said that her rank would be 2nd lieutenant if she joins the military after her training. She likes her training and the ROTC, at the same time, also helps with matriculation. She only pays half of the tuition, which is around 1,000 Philippine peso per semester. Some of the nurses tried to persuade her about getting into nursing but she seemed resolved in becoming a soldier.

The experience that this 5-day Philippine Mission was a boost that every Fil-Am nurse need to re-energize and re-appreciate the basic tenets of the nursing profession- that of caring and helping. Joining medical/surgical missions is a proactive venture into the tenets of nursing that might have been lying dormant inside every nurse leading to indifference to our vocation. It’s just like a shot of vitamin B12 for reinvigoration. However, when joining medical/surgical missions, you have to be ready to pay your way 100%. You have to make arrangements with family and work back home. And lastly, you have to be flexible and open-minded to the intricacies of the inconvenience of the host country. But do not let this discourage you for the returns, though intangible, is good for the heart. And that is what the doctor prescribes!

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