July 21, 2021
From performing surgery to donating PPEs, TIMA doctor is a tireless, hands- on volunteer
By Joy Rojas
In March 2020, when the number of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 was beginning to rise, Dr. Josefino “JO” Qua, oncological surgeon and one of the founding members of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA), was on the road, distributing donated face masks and personal protective equipment to hospitals around the metro. Occasionally, he was accompanied by a Tzu Chi volunteer, but for the most part, Dr. Qua preferred to do it alone because he didn’t want to risk exposing others to the potentially fatal virus.
The surgeon showed the same tireless, selfless, and hands-on level of commitment as head of TIMA’s medical missions from 1995 to 2001. Volunteered by his mother Dionisia, one of Tzu Chi’s original members who helped secure medicines for charity patients at the Chinese General Hospital, Dr. Qua faced many challenges from the get-go.
“Since we were just starting, we didn’t have the equipment and the manpower,” he says. “During that time, Dr. Leh Siu Chuan was the associate medical director of Chinese General Hospital, and we decided to ask him for help getting doctors and surgeons [to join the missions] as well as borrowing equipment.”
If they weren’t borrowing or renting equipment, they were buying it secondhand. TIMA’s portable anesthesia machine was the very machine used by doctors during Desert Storm in 1991. Amazingly, the machine still works and continues to be of use to doctors in surgical missions organized in Zamboanga.
In an effort to save money, Dr. Qua went to Bambang in Manila, to source for affordable medical supplies. He changed his mind when he discovered that the items for sale were stolen goods. “I said no, that’s against our principles.”
Any pledges from donors who were impressed with TIMA’s work went to investing in brand-new equipment, like the two cautery machines he purchased in Hong Kong. For the type of surgery that TIMA does—cleft lip, hernia, thyroid—a cautery machine expedites the procedure and allows doctors to work more efficiently. “If we can do surgery faster, then we can do more patients. If we can do more patients, we can help more people,” he says.
“In the provinces, people don’t have any money, and they don’t have a chance to see a doctor,” he explains. “So every time we go to the province, our main dictum is to do as much as we can. If we can do surgery on these people, we will relieve them of their symptoms. If we don’t do it, I don’t think they’ll have any chance [to seek medical attention] at all in their life.”
Dr. Qua also took charge of laying the groundwork of each surgical mission. This entailed going to the targeted province, meeting with local doctors, nurses, and politicians, and identifying a place that will serve as a venue for the medical mission. “Usually we do it in a Chinese school,” he says. “Schools are a nice place because there are plenty of rooms and open spaces.” From there he would plan the smooth flow of the process, one that takes patients from makeshift consultation rooms to operating rooms and recovery rooms.
Scheduled for five days every quarter, TIMA medical missions combined doctors’ instincts and innovation. Office desks doubled as surgical tables, bon bon folding beds became stretchers once wooden poles were attached to them, and after grueling hours in the operating room, surgeons had to transfer their patients to the recovery room themselves. “All in all, it’s guts. It’s really guts,” he says.
It’s also dedication. In a surgical mission in Cebu, he assigned two doctors to clear 24 patients for surgery the following day. When they returned, both had scheduled 22 patients each, meaning they had to perform surgery on 44 patients. “Since we promised them that we would do the surgery, then we have to do it,” says Dr. Qua firmly. The next day, the team was up early for 44 surgeries that stretched from 8 am to 1 am the following morning.
What motivates these doctors to devote their time and expertise to medical pursuits that demand so much from them, yet don’t earn them a single centavo? For Dr. Qua, a native of Daet, Camarines Norte, it goes back to his youth when he knew with much certainty that he didn’t just want to be any surgeon. “I wanted to be a surgeon to help people in need,” he says.
Dr. Qua, who finished medicine at Far Eastern University, trained for surgery at Chinese General Hospital, then trained for surgical oncology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, New York, eventually carved a successful career for himself. Yet somehow, even with all the comforts and privileges it afforded him, he felt that there was something missing.
“Am I doing the right thing? What happened to my childhood dream? Something’s wrong,” he told himself. Then his mother volunteered him to the Tzu Chi Foundation and everything just fell into place.
These days, medical missions are mostly concentrated in Zamboanga, though Dr. Qua occasionally performs surgeries that are referred to Tzu Chi’s charity department. Of late, TIMA doctors have volunteered their time and efforts to a number of COVID-19 vaccination programs, including the one organized by Tzu Chi.
Still, the association’s founder hopes the group can revert to its original mission. “There are a lot of frustrations,” he admits. “But I hope someday we can reorganize everything and do what we are supposed to do. No politics, because politics destroys everything. We work as one.”