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Aloha Medical Mission Heals the Poor in the Philippines

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For a week in February, a team of 28 volunteers helped heal some of the poorest people in Tuguegarao and the surrounding region of the Philippines. The visitors from Hawaii’s Aloha Medical Mission and their local partners saw 1,300 patients, performed 22 major surgeries and 67 minor ones, conducted 275 dental extractions, and dispensed drugs and medical advice to those who could not afford healthcare.

Everyone on the mission paid their own way, including airfare, hotel and food – almost $2,000 each. Hawaii Business staff photographer David Croxford accompanied them, as did UH-Manoa journalism students Deborah Manog and Bobby Bergonio, whose trips were funded by scholarships. This is the story of that mission.

Tuguegarao is the capital of Cagayan, one of the northern-most provinces in the Philippines. The city of about 140,000 people is a bustling regional hub with streets dominated by a huge population of motorized tricycles, which can carry up to five people at a time. Though the city has several hospitals and healthcare is cheap by U.S. standards, the average Tuguegarao resident makes about 200 pesos a day, less than $5 U.S., so even serious illnesses and injuries are often left untreated. That’s why the volunteers of the Aloha Medical Mission came.

Word had spread that the Aloha Medical Mission was coming, so before dawn on the first day of treatment, hundreds of people were crowded outside the parish hall of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Among them was Krisensha Ramos, a 28-year-old housemaid from the town of Iguig, who is married with four daughters. Ramos had a golf-ball-size lipoma, a benign tumor of fatty tissue, for seven years. Located just behind her left shoulder, it caused pain whenever the weather turned cold. Surgery to remove it would have cost 12,000 pesos or roughly $270 – an impossible price for her and her family.

After the doors opened, the parish hall quickly filled up with people of all ages. In one corner, a woman clenched a rosary between her fingers as Dr. Jesse Navarrete, a dentist from Ewa Beach who works at the Kalihi-Palama Health Center (photo below center), carefully extracted a stubborn cavity using only simple dental equipment. He sometimes resorted to a flashlight app from a cell phone when the light from the window wasn’t enough.

Tiny packets of drugs and supplements, laboriously assembled during hours of work by the volunteers in their hotel rooms, were quickly distributed. Among the recipients was a 21-year-old mother who brought her two daughters for a checkup and free multivitamins.

RN Lolita Ching is a busy woman: She is the co-owner of Waipahu-based Quality Case Management, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, an Iraq veteran and a member of the Aloha Medical Mission’s board. She was not surprised by the chaos of the first day in Tuguegarao because she has volunteered overseas with AMM since 1992.

“The first day you don’t know what your role is. You don’t know what to expect with the locals and they don’t know what to expect from you,” she said.

But by the second day, the mission has found a rhythm and work proceeds efficiently. Across the street from the parish hall is the vivid green Tuguegarao City People’s General Hospital (shown above), where local doctors and nurses who volunteered their time worked effectively with the AMM volunteers.

Though they treated hundreds of people as efficiently as possible, volunteers still connected personally with many of them. Heather Postema, a registered nurse at Pali Momi Medical Center and a first-time volunteer with AMM, grew particularly fond of a little boy recovering from surgery. Postema gave the child her treasured rosary, a gift from her grandmother. “I just can’t grasp the concept that you can be sick and if you don’t have money they’ll turn you away. I just can’t,” Postema said about everyday healthcare in the Philippines.

After one exhausting day of surgeries and treatments, most of the volunteers were at their hotel down the street from the hospital and thinking about dinner. That’s when the call went out that there was an emergency Caesarean section. Aileen Banatao, her baby breech with feet first, was whisked into the operating room. Twenty people joined her, including both local and AMM volunteers. The hospital’s ob-gyn surgeon, Dr. Mildred Banatao, silenced the crowd and led a prayer before surgery. (Yes, patient and surgeon share the same name but are not related.)

Everyone watched silently as the doctor made the incision and the operating team worked together. Within minutes, the silent baby was pulled from his mother’s body, feet first. Everyone held their breath as the doctors wiped the baby clean. Finally, a cry from the child ignited cheers from everyone while cameras flashed.

The event was especially emotional for the mission’s youngest volunteer, Jamie Hattler, a high school student from Palo Alto, Calif., who had no regrets about missing two weekends and four days of school to help. “I didn’t think they would let me watch and hold the baby. I’m just a random person who’s 16,” Hattler said. “I got to hold him for like 10 minutes.”

The baby’s mother revealed that had it not been for the mission, she and her husband would have been forced to sell their family’s water buffalo to pay for the operation. The baby was named Khing Keano Banatao, his middle name inspired by the Hawaiian name “Keanu,” in honor of the Hawaii-based Aloha Medical Mission. “The Aloha Medical Mission Baby” reinvigorated the volunteers for the rest of their mission and probably for a long time after that.

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