By Hieu Phung Nguyen
My mentor once said, “What you put into is what you get out of it.” It has been my dream for the longest time to be able to serve on a medical mission in a developing country. Luckily in February, my dream came true. I had a wonderful opportunity to join the Ohana Medical Mission trip to the Philippines as a volunteer. I was able to spend 12 days in different cities while providing healthcare to an underserved population. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the days were challenging but rewarding at the same time. I definitely received more than what I was able to give.
I remembered about a week before we flew out, the news about the massive eruption of the Taal Volcano, and the highly contagious Coronavirus frightened me. Then some technical issues happened so our connecting flights were delayed for about an hour. At that time, it felt like a sign that I shouldn’t go, nevertheless, I did not want to pass on this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. The idea that comes to my mind while reflecting on what the mission has taught me is gratitude. It taught me to be thankful for the little things that we all often take for granted. Toilet paper, for instance, wasn’t provided at most places in the Philippines. I work registration at an urgent care, and I know how frustrating the insurance or just healthcare system in general is. I was disliking the idea that the insurances run the system. Surprisingly, after this mission, I also became grateful for the healthcare system we had here in the US. I know that if there was a person with a life-threatening condition, they can be treated and cared for despite whether they have money or not, or that we have the ongoing care for chronic diseases like blood pressure, diabetes, etc. These are the things that are inaccessible for the people in the Philippines.
We usually arrive at the site at 8 a.m. and immediately set up our stations. It didn’t take long before the crowd started to build up. On our first day in Pasuqion Sports Complex in Ilocos Norte, my heart was filled with excitement and compassion at the sight of hundreds of people lining up. I’m about to learn about these people, their culture, diagnoses and treatments. From elder folks, adults, to small children carried by their siblings, everyone was waiting to get their free consultation, medicines or even just some multivitamins. Everyone was so patient despite waiting in line for long hours. You could see the smile on their faces when it’s their turn to be seen. I was shadowing Dr. Debbie Fermin. Being the only Vietnamese there, I thought I was the only one struggling with the language barrier. However, there was also a slight dialect barrier between doctors and patients. Nevertheless, we have wonderful volunteers who could speak both so the process of diagnosing illnesses and explaining the doses of medications became easier. We were still able to laugh and make jokes to keep the spirits up.
On our second day, we went to Sarrat Civic Center in Ilocos Norte. I worked with patients at the pharmacy trying to explain medications and finding substitutions for the ones that we don’t have due to limited resources. Although I was constantly asking questions and sometimes felt like a burden, Dr. Nogot was so kind and patiently explained the medications and doses so I could distribute them correctly. But the most memorable thing that happened was the opportunity to scrub in minor surgery. I was amazed at the skillful hands of Dr. Dela Cruz. While Dr. Rosario was so humble to teach me and make sure to include me in conversations with the patients by translating everything to English and explaining the diagnoses and procedures in detail. I was so thankful for learning surgical skills from Dr. Dela Cruz and Dr. Rosario. Our Operating Room nurse, Armie, was so kind to teach us about sterile procedures and surgical tools.
In the next few days, I was exposed to many different scopes of practice as we traveled through Ilocos Sur. I continued helping out in minor surgeries at Cabugao Health Center, Guantacia Sports Center, Sinait Sports Complex and San Esteban Municipal Hall. There was an instance due to time constraints, we had to turn away around 40 children who were still waiting to get circumcised. There was also an elder with a deep cut and tore tendon waiting for surgery. It seems like he had the wound for more than a week but can’t afford to go to the hospital. Because we don’t have some tools for the surgery, we had to consult him to go to the hospital instead. Despite the fact we had to turn our patients away, they thanked us anyway and said goodbye.
I proudly jumped from station to station. At Cuantacla Sports Center, I shadowed Dr. Jacang at pediatrics. I still couldn’t forget the adorable crying children we’ve seen that day. Kids being kids, they were scared of seeing doctors. Some of them smiled brightly, while some were terrified and started crying. At the dental station, I got to see tooth extraction procedures. The dentist numbed the area around the tooth then he went ahead and remove it. All of these happened in less than 10 minutes while the patient was sitting up straight. I was shocked but fascinated at the same time.
Although the clinical experience was truly incredible, my favorite part of it all was the relationships I built with the doctors and medical students. During the CME, they allowed me to participate in discussions and ask questions. I also got to practice my Filipino dialects and learned the most important word for all doctors, “sakit” which means pain. When we were allowed for personal time, I got to spend time with my fellow pre-med students. We talked about the stars, moon and our dreams. We also got to try many different foods. I never knew Longganisa ever existed. I fell deeply for the vinegar Longganisa and thought that I can eat this every day. We got to see many beautiful and glorious churches. We also explored the vintage city of Vigan while riding a kalesa. I will always look back and think about how lucky I was to be a part of this mission and spend an incredible two weeks with these amazing people. This mission not only allowed me to learn Filipino culture, but also the young doctors who are so inspiring and hard-working. Even though they were all preparing for their US residency program, they still gave part of their limited time to help their community.
Overall, I’ve had a life-affirming journey. This mission gives me the power of hope and caring in making a better life for all. I’m very thankful for all of the wonderful and dedicated Manong and Manang who welcomed, taught and worked with me. I can’t wait to go again! As Dr. Sonido once said, “even though the mission is only short-term relief, your acts of kindness will be remembered forever.” There is something about giving back and helping those in need or just being a useful part for a cause always gives me butterflies in the stomach. It’s an overwhelming sense of reward. I hope to continue these mission trips and urge others to do the same for a better impact on global health.