Michelle LaVina is a nurse from Oregon and a Medical Teams International volunteer. She was a member of one of the more than 15 volunteer teams sent to provide care to the people of the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. Michelle, whose family is from the Philippines, was eager to help make a difference in the lives of so many suffering people; she recently sat down with us to share her reflections on her experience.
What did you find most challenging about this volunteer experience?
This trip was a personal and special trip for me. My father was born in Tacloban and my grandparents are from Leyte. While I have been to the Philippines several times before, I had never been to Leyte. I honestly never thought I would have an opportunity to go. I found it to be a very emotional trip at times.
Moments that take me back are the first sights of the destruction from the air and driving through the villages seeing the destruction during the first days of my deployment, which was 3 weeks after the typhoon. Seeing the lines of people waiting patiently for hours to sit in front of me for a few moments was overwhelming at times. I found it hard to complain about anything, I rarely stopped to eat anything during the day because the lines were so long and the people were so patient.
Was there one particular person or persons you cared for in the Philippines that stands out?
I worked with a young family; the mother had 3 young children, one who was an infant. She was in a town that had not seen medical care since the typhoon and stood in line with all her children for hours. When she finally reached me I could see she was doing the best she could to maintain normalcy for her children. She appeared overwhelmed by the situation but her strength to improve her situation was evident by her warm smile and attention to her children. I treated them all for skin infections and rashes, cough and cold symptoms. I spent some time talking to her and was truly in awe of her strength as she was blind. Despite this handicap she was courageously moving forward in raising her children to give them the best she could.
There were many stories of people that just needed a hand to hold and someone to talk to about their trauma. I spent lots of time talking to people about how to deal with their post-trauma stress.
The saddest stories are those who had medical problems that I could not help. Those people that I knew did not have access to the special surgery or medical treatment that they needed. Those are the people that remain in my thoughts and prayers. What do you think people might be surprised to know about the people you met or the country itself?
It is no surprise to anyone that the Philippines are largely a Christian country. What most impressed me was their faith. In most villages the only building left standing was the church. Many people I talked with said they fled to the church to ride out the storm. In many villages the churches were also destroyed leaving only the sanctuary standing.
On Sundays the churches were filled with people attending mass. In most cases the
roofs and walls were gone, all we could see were people filling up the church and
spilling out the sides where walls should have been. Everywhere I went we met
people who were struggling but not without their strong faith that God would see them through this disaster. The believed they would be better than before and they will ‘rise up’. This term ‘rise up’ (‘Tindog’ in the language of Leyte,‘Bangon’ in the language of Manila) was posted all over the island, from large banners in Tacloban to hand-made signs on the sides of the road. The Filipinos are proud people, they will ‘rise up’ and their faith will see them through.