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12/09/2013

Philippines typhoon: Tales of inspiration, tale of heartbreak

Leyte

Survivors stand among debris and ruins of houses destroyed after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city, the capital of the province of Leyte in central Philippines. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Last week, we introduced you to Sherri Grady. On her birthday, the Sick Kids nurse learned she was going to the Philippines with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which is currently providing medical aid to survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda.

(In case you missed it, the Star's Amy Dempsey recently travelled to the Philippines with a Toronto woman searching for her loved ones. You can read her stories here and here and see photographer Lucas Oleniuk's pictures here).

Before departing on Dec. 1, Sherri agreed to send occasional updates from the Philippines, which is still picking up the pieces from Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda. This is Sherri's first update.

Tell us about your first 24 hours in the Philippines.

My first 24 hours in the Philippines were a sweaty whirlwind of activity involving several briefings, a ferry ride and a handover from the outgoing nurse I was replacing.  Twelve hours after landing in Cebu and the first of my briefings, I found myself on a ferry to Ormoc on Leyte Island. Tired, sore and overwhelmed, I was heading to my project and the base for our medical, logistical, water and sanitation activities.

The ferry landed in the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life and as I walked out to the street in search of the MSF car, I was immediately assaulted with a symphony of car horns, street hawkers and generators.  Amidst a backdrop of destroyed buildings, power failures, damaged roofs and debris, life has continued and I was standing in the thick of it.

Where in the Philippines are you right now and what role have you been given?

While MSF may be based in Ormoc, our medical activities are far reaching in Leyte and we are providing primary health care and completing health assessments in areas all over the island that have been heavily damaged by the typhoon Yolanda. 

My first day I was struck by the scale of the devastation amidst the natural beauty of the Philippines as the route to our mobile clinic took us over mountains, along the ocean and past rice fields for over two hours. It somehow seems unfair to me that the hardest hit areas appear to also be the poorest, shacks constructed out of bamboo with woven walls and roofs made out of what appears to be palm fronds lay collapsed on the ground. I can’t help but remember the children’s story of the thre little pigs; Yolanda “huffed and puffed” and the homes of families all over Leyte Island just blew right over.

The medical team that I am a part of comprises doctors, nurses, midwives and mental health workers – 75% of which are individuals from the Philippines, the other 25% are expats like me working as aid workers for MSF in the Philippines. Together we have been providing primary healthcare through both mobile clinics and in supporting local health structures.

Tell us about a typhoon survivor you have met.

During consultations I try to take time to speak with people about their experiences and how they are coping now.  I hear stories daily, capable of simultaneously breaking and inspiring one’s heart. 

One woman described to me how her home had lost its roof during the typhoon and as we stood there in yet another rainstorm, she explained how she and her family were sleeping under the kitchen counters to keep dry at night.  Less than 3 weeks after what she described as the most terrifying experience of her life, she had come to our clinic looking for painkillers so that she could continue rebuilding her home. 

Parents arrive, concerned about children who are now terrified of the wind and rain. Many describe episodes of panic, inconsolable crying and even fainting when a storm rolls through (which has been happening in this region on almost a daily basis). 

When we encounter these families, I am grateful for the commitment and expertise of our mental health team who work alongside us daily. The physical scar Yolanda has left behind is present everywhere we work. I only hope MSF’s focus on mental health will prevent the less obvious but perhaps more long-term emotional scarring associated with traumatic events.

What are you expecting from week two in the Philippines?

Week two in Leyte is starting to look busy.  There is talk of moving our base to be closer to our medical activities, assessments in Barangays (small subdivisions of municipalities) in the mountains, and even mobile clinics along the coastal region by boat.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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