July 23, 2021
TIMA’s history includes lasting contributions from two volunteers from the Philippines
By Joy Rojas
The Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) was founded in 1998 to provide the poor with relief and compassion through expert medical treatment and services. As of 2017, TIMA has 12 mission teams in Taiwan, as well as chapters in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. Globally, over 16,000 medical professionals have volunteered their time and expertise to treating millions of sick people, many of who have never visited a hospital or seen a doctor before.
But TIMA’s history would not be complete without the invaluable contributions of two Tzu Chi volunteers from the Philippines. Linda Chua, Tzu Chi Philippines’ first CEO (1994-2001), initiated the first medical mission in the Philippines in April 1995. She was also responsible for designing the TIMA uniform—a white collared shirt embroidered with the Tzu Chi logo in blue. This distinguishes volunteer doctors from volunteers in training (in gray shirts embroidered with white Tzu Chi logo) and certified commissioners (in dark blue shirts embroidered with white Tzu Chi logo).
Chua also designed the doctors’ uniform for surgery—loose-fit blue cotton scrubs embroidered with a white Tzu Chi logo. Samples of both garments were first presented to Dharma Master Cheng Yen in Taiwan, who gave her approval.
Volunteer doctors have been wearing Chua’s design since 1995, and the first time they visited the Dharma Master during the August Moon Festival on September 27, 1996, guests gushed over the dignified look of the group in their crisp white tops.
TIMA itself was formed with a Filipino doctor in attendance. Long before he met up with Tzu Chi Global Volunteers Executive Director Stephen Huang and Tzu Chi Medical Missions CEO Dr. Lin Junlong in Hawaii, USA, to officially launch TIMA in 1998, Dr. Josefino “Jo” Qua was already organizing medical missions all over the Philippines. Since the first medical mission in Baguio in 1995, Dr. Qua has scheduled these five-day events on a quarterly basis until 2001.
Despite modest resources (mostly pledges from supportive donors), Dr. Qua managed to set up surgical missions for cleft lip, hernia, and thyroid in Chinese schools, converting classrooms into makeshift consultation, operating, and recovery rooms. He also sourced for affordable, secondhand equipment—yet wisely invested in brand-new tools like cautery machines to ensure doctors performed more surgeries faster and efficiently.
Still, if there was one thing that earned the admiration of Taiwan’s medical team, it’s the Filipino doctors’ ability to improvise and make do with what they had. Folding beds became stretchers, pieces of lumber and plywood were assembled into operating tables, and with a bit of paper, an ordinary light bulb became a surgical lamp. Mindful of the fact that their patients may never get the chance to see another doctor again, the TIMA Philippines volunteers worked long hours and showed up bright and early the following morning for the day’s new batch of patients.
“The Taiwan doctors thought it was impossible. Just imagine transporting a hospital in Manila to the province with no equipment, no personnel, no everything,” says Dr. Qua. “So Master said, ‘Why don’t you go to the Philippines and see what they’re doing?’
Later, a medical director from Hualien, Taiwan, who joined one of the medical missions, wrote about how impressed he was with Filipinos. “They never expected the doctors here would be able to do it,” says Dr. Qua. “If they didn’t see it, they thought we were talking nonsense.”
That, perhaps, is Filipinos’ best contribution to TIMA’s story: the resourcefulness, can-do spirit, and most important, the willingness to serve those in need even in the most unfavorable circumstances.