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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bicol in my mind (1)

The sight of the coconut trees gave the situation away.

From Quezon onwards, even with just the moon as the source for illumination, the coconut trees have taken on a distinct look: the fronds look as if they’ve been swept to one side, the one-sided hairstyle of convicted Calauan, Laguna mayor Antonio Sanchez.

Still unable to build the imagery?

Think Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost. The pottery-making scene. Yeap, The Pottery-Making Scene. Let’s extrapolate a little further. Imagine that they were actually able to make one, say, foot-high vase. Then they let it stand before baking it in a kiln. The vase is done, albeit still a little soft. Then a Philippine softball team batter hits the still-soft vase with all his might. The disfigured vase isn’t so hard to imagine- is it?

That’s practically what happened in Bicol and the area in the path of Supertyphoon Reming. They were pummeled by some 230+ kph winds for several hours, leaving a disastrous trail of damage to property and death of loved ones.

We had an ocular inspection and health service delivery activity this week in two province, Camarines Sur and Albay. We rode a bus on which it was heartening to discover that the roads were basically free from blocking typhoon-related debris. As the small team was split, I was assigned to visit two Gawad Kalinga sites in Camarines Sur in the towns of Goa and Ocampo.

Both towns are within eighty minutes’ drive from Naga City. During the trip towards the two sites, not one kilometer had a view from the car where destruction was not evident. It was kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of uprooted trees, fallen power lines, roofless homes. Nothing was spared: shacks, softdrink companies’ warehouses, public school buildings, university auditoriums. I stopped counting toppled electric posts and towers when I reached fifty. And that was just on one side of the road. Even bamboos, symbols of quiet and reliable resilience, were ravaged by Reming, with many a grove containing bent-until-they-broke, snapped-into-two bamboo trees.

The most curious thing I saw was a piece of galvanized iron sheet bent like a horseshoe slung on a miraculously still-taut-between-two-upright-transmission-tower high-tension wire. What happened there? Probably the roof flew off, hit the wire, with the wind so powerful it bent the GI sheet into a U-shaped. Imagine that.

I kid you not, choose to point your camera or camcorder on the vista whizzing by and within any 60-second recording time, you would have caught dozens of signs of destruction. After some time, you begin to shake off the temptation to be callous: your eyes and heart can only take so much kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of destruction.

Then we got to the Gawad Kalinga sites. In GK Tagongtong, in the town of Goa, not too far from Naga City, of the 161 houses built, only 17 were not damaged. Many of the houses had their roofs blown away, some even had damage to their concrete walls. The residents huddled in houses which withstood Reming’s fury, multiple families cramped together in a 4x5-meter space. Right-click here to see a short video of the situation in Goa.

I am not a fan of medical missions. I believe these promote mendicancy. I did not want to be an accomplice to the propagation of the dole-out mentality. Hence, I really did not want to sit down and see patients. What I had in mind was that we’d just perform an ocular inspection of the damages in the area, have a general feel of what ails the people; dump the medicines we brought to the nearest local health center where people ought to have themselves checked ultimately, and then leave. To just touch base with the people. The aim really was, when we return to Manila, we can prepare for a more focused and orchestrated and ultimately effective attack on the health problems among the Reming-damaged communities.

On a more practical note, our sub-team only had two doctors. In my mind I was anticipating SO MANY PATIENTS that would be too tiring to handle. I vowed that my role during this trip is this: to be just the official documenter of the visit.

But no. At the sight of the people waiting for us in the multipurpose hall converted into a makeshift mega-clinic, my photographer’s hat was quickly ditched in favor of my doctor’s hat. After all, to give aid to a disaster-stricken population is one of the few allowable reasons to conduct a medical mission.

Many were stricken with ordinary coughs and colds, some were glaring TB cases, some sustained typhoon-related injuries. With drizzle from low-lying gray clouds alternating with softly piercing heat from the midday sun, we eventually saw about 100 patients in GK Tagongtong.

It was difficult having to turn away patients but we had to visit another Gawad Kalinga site, in the town of Ocampo, still in Camarines Sur. It was pure déjà vu: roofless homes, shattered concrete walls, close to three hundred GK site residents lining up to have themselves checked through the heat in the makeshift clinic, amidst the rain that fell through the partially roofless hall, in spite of the language barrier. For a person who is not the least bit fond of medical missions, I had around ten “Last-na-po-kayo-ha. Last-na-po-talaga” patients.

I couldn’t say no to them. It seemed un-Christian, inhuman to do so.

I would have seen more patients if we didn’t have to rush back to Naga to make it to the 9pm bus bound for Manila.

(The Gawad Kalusugan team will be back in Bicol before Christmas to render a more holistic yet focused health care. You, too, can help even if you're not a health professional. Give through Gawad Kalinga and become a hero for health.)

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