Five years after the catastrophe known as Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), TIMA doctors who have served since its aftermath recall the hardships they endured in the name of love and care. Tzu Chi’s three-day medical mission is among the legacies the Buddhist organization has imprinted upon Tacloban, its success story.
A middle-aged woman bound to a wheelchair came to Tzu Chi International Association (TIMA) physician Chan Chiew Yong. It was the last day of Tzu Chi’s three-day medical mission at Leyte Progressive High School, and people were hurrying to beat the cutoff time.
Chan’s patient has been paralyzed since 2010 as a result of tuberculosis meningitis. It’s not the disease itself that caused her paralysis, as her husband told the volunteers, but the plethora of medications she had to take because of her disease. Chan put her expertise in acupuncture to work, doing what she can to ease the woman’s suffering. All around her, the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) clinic bustles with activity, not one therapist running out of patients to treat.
The last day of the medical mission treated 1,884 patients. Over the course of three days, it treated a total of 6,267 patients from Tacloban and all over Eastern Visayas.
One can say that the medical mission in Tacloban has come a long way from its beginnings in 2015. Chan attests to this, as on the first mission the TCM clinic was practically empty.
“No one in Tacloban knew about TCM. During the first mission, nobody lined up for acupuncture and such. The first person to come to us was because someone told him that there was no line in the TCM department,” narrated Chan, part of Singapore’s TIMA contingent.
On a foreign land ravaged by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), some of the doctors had no idea what to do. There were people clearly suffering, even two years after the disaster has passed, but the effect Yolanda had on them somewhat froze the doctors and volunteers solid.
“I wasn’t well-prepared psychologically when I first came here. I saw the disaster for how bad it was. I remember going to the stadium [Tacloban Astrodome], which was missing some roofing and windows,” narrated Lim Kim Yan, a TIMA nurse from the Singapore contingent.
In 2013, Yolanda brought destruction on a scale the likes of the world have never experienced. Tacloban City was leveled nearly to the point of being wiped off the map. Driven to desperation, some resorted to looting stores in order to survive the aftermath. The world responded with one of—if not—the largest mobilizations of humanitarian aid in history. And Tzu Chi was part of that.
For the past five years, Tzu Chi has been supporting Tacloban and several other municipalities in the northern half of Leyte. The yearly medical mission since 2015 is among Tzu Chi’s forms of aid, mustering local and foreign TIMA doctors and volunteers to offer free medical services. Leyte Progressive High School has been the preferred venue for such an activity ever since.
Setting up shop in post-Yolanda Tacloban, however, was met with great difficulty. Taiwanese TIMA dentist Lee Yipang recalls arriving for the first medical mission to a blacked-out Ormoc, three hours from Tacloban. Their airline couldn’t land on Tacloban’s damaged airport, forcing them to make the rest of the trip by land.
Arriving at the school, Lee and his colleagues immediately knew that they were in for tough times over the course of their stay. Without power and water, TIMA dentists were unable to perform dental fillings and prophylaxis—only extractions. More importantly, the school also served as their hotel.
“Staying in this school, we couldn’t take a shower and had to sleep on the floor. At midnight, insects would crawl into the beds and bite our arms. Many of our colleagues would wake up with red bite marks on their arms,” Lee narrated.
“Still, we have to think about the others who may be suffering from something terrible. So, we have to give what we can give to help them,” he added.
Over the years, normal life in Tacloban was eventually restored. Taiwanese TIMA dentist Hsieh Chin-ling could better treat his patients with his expertise.
“Now, we can even do root canal. We can do whatever we need to do,” said Hsieh.
Tzu Chi Philippines deputy-CEO Alfredo Li attests to the drastic change in Tacloban and the people since Yolanda. Five years after the disaster that claimed over 6,000 lives, the Tzu Chi name still rings out strong. In fact, some of the patients had been cash-for-work volunteers on the day the foundation came to their aid.
“Spiritually, we have done something. We have injected in them a sense of gratitude, even a sense that they can do better. What’s more important is they can see that they have a brighter future,” said Li.
As Tacloban looks to the future, its people hope that nothing like Yolanda ever happens again. Should that be the case, however, the “angels in blue” and “healers in white” will be more than ready and willing to extend a helping hand.