The roadside is littered with this burning debris. The sun is hot above us. Dark smoke curls into the pale blue sky.
We are a team from the RN Response Network, part of National Nurses United. I am traveling with nurses dispatched from across the United States to the Philippines as part of RNRN’s disaster relief efforts on the island of Panay. These registered nurses have left their lives behind for a short while to help people suffering from injuries, exposure, respiratory illness, and more. During their stay here, nurses will treat people who already had limited access to healthcare, even before the typhoon.
As we travel we see that some people, with help from friends and neighbors, have already started to rebuild their homes. When we stop for water the sound of people hammering new roofs on skeleton houses rises above the noise of the tricycle taxis rushing by. We get back into our van. Girlie Garnada, an RN from Florida, was born in the Philippines. She marvels at the community rebuilding together against incredible odds.
“It’s Bayanihan,” she explains to the other nurses. “It means helping each other. That’s what we do,” she says with pride. Everywhere, the Philippine philosophy of Bayanihan is in evidence. Neighbor feeds neighbor. Friends offer their labor to friends. And when the nurses provide care, the gifts arrive in abundance. Women and children bring food and candy…anything they have…to the nurses, even though they have little left to give.
Each day we get up early and travel one to three hours to a site arranged by the Alliance of Health Workers, a member of Global Nurses United (GNU), and our partner in the Philippines. This week, the Alliance has arranged for us to work with a group of doctors and nurses volunteering from Singapore. Our duties have taken us to various schoolyards and community health centers, where we set up tables and chairs on the hot pavement while volunteers set up huge tents from sheets of plastic balanced on bamboo poles and tied together with rope and string.
Today we arrive at Barangay Cano-an. Our medical mission there takes place in a bright yellow community center. When we arrive, people eager for care have already surrounded the building. RNRN nurses respond by immediately organizing a triage area and confer with other healthcare workers to smooth the way for patients. Soon, everyone is lined up around RNs Girlie Garnada and Stella Auto, who facilitate intake, while Lora Cook, Anna Rathbun, Betty Sparks, Ashley Forsberg, Jane Sandoval, Lori Barmore, and Paolo Montenegro work triage like a well-oiled machine. RN Gandessa Orteza takes on the role of ringmaster, calling out names and asking patients to “step right up” to move the line along. Inside, RNRN NP Betty Woods works with the doctors.
Later, one of the Singaporean doctors pulls me aside. “Your nurses are top-notch,” he says. “They are great to work with!”
It comes as no surprise to me.
I was in Haiti with nurses and I can liken what I saw there to a Superbowl game. When you see what football players do up close, you realize that they have a special, even miraculous talent. When a player runs fifty yards at full speed right before your eyes, it blows you away. When you see a nurse take action that results in changing a life, you get the same rush, only better. Because a nurse’s talent actually saves lives. And what nurses do, and the dedication with which they do it, is simply amazing.
In the Philippines, nurses aren’t just ministering to bodies, they are ministering to souls. Later in the week, we travel to Barangay Nipa at the water’s edge. It’s a tropical paradise of white sand next to a wide expanse of lush grass, littered with coconuts and pond fronds, broken boats and ravaged homes in the distance. Here I meet Noemi, who describes hiding under the table while her roof lifted off above her. “I saw metal spinning in the air,” she tells me. “I was afraid it would cut my head off!”
The trauma people have suffered is evidenced in sleepless nights, nightmare, anxiety, and trauma. One of our RNRN nurse volunteers, Stella Auto, a Veterans Administration nurse at home, counsels whole families in a separate building near the medical stations. “They need to talk about what happened. It’s better to talk about it, “ she says as we debrief on the way home. Nurses triaging in another building see evidence of the stress survivors of the typhoon are undergoing in elevated blood pressure and anxious faces. And everyone agrees that they’ve treated people who simply should have had access to healthcare in the first place. “We’re seeing illness that can be prevented with better care,” RN Ashley Forsberg says. “Everyone has the right to healthcare.”
It’s dark each night when we return to our hotel. We are exhausted, but we know how lucky we are. We know there is more to do tomorrow, and we’ll do it gladly. It’s the spirit we’ve adopted, the spirit we wish the world would embrace; Bayanihan – the spirit of communal unity and cooperation that is essential both to a deployment, and to a better life on earth. It’s the spirit that keeps the RN Response Network on the ground providing care long after the cameras are gone, believing, against all odds, in quality healthcare for everyone.
Erin FitzGerald is a staff coordinator with RNRN, writer and video producer. She traveled with RNRN’s 4th deployment in the Philippines.
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