On Wednesday, Jan. 8, Dr. Mike Karch delivered an alternately devastating and inspiring presentation on the Mammoth Medical Missions (MMM) time in the Philippines in the wake of super Typhoon Haiyan.
Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon in recorded history, hit the Philippines in early November, killing at least 6,000 people and leaving as many as 1,000 still missing, Dr. Karch said.
The Typhoon struck the Philippines just as MMM was preparing to embark on a medical mission to Chiapas, Mexico.
Mammoth Medical Missions is a secular, non-profit healthcare organization that donates its services to underserved rural communities across the world. Its team members are made up of surgeons, doctors, and medical support volunteers.
David Page, Chief Operating Officer of MMM, suggested the 16 members of the team redirect their trip from Chiapas to where he felt they were needed most: storm-torn Tacloban. “This lunatic idea that David Page came up with, the team accepted and embodied it,” Dr. Karch said.
The team arrived in Tacloban within 48 hours of their decision, only to learn by happenstance from a woman aboard their flight that the worst damage had been sustained not in Tacloban, but in the town of Tanauan, 18 miles south.
Again, through a fortuitous turn of events, the team happened to meet the Mayor of Tanauan, Pel Tecson, who had traveled 10 hours to reach the Tacloban airport. Within 5 minutes, Dr. Karch said, he and the MMM team were on a helicopter headed to Tanauan. They were the first outsiders offering aid to arrive.
Mayor Tecson opened the presentation via telephone with profound thanks to the MMM team. “We’re so grateful for what you have done,” he said. “You were amazing people. Without you, many more people would have perished.” Seven survivors of the Typhoon were also in attendance at the presentation.
MMM set up operations in City Hall, one of the few buildings left standing after the Typhoon hit. Using desks as tables, and a tarp as a roof, the sixteen team members went on to perform 150 surgeries, 53 of those in the first day, Dr. Karch said.
“We had no power, no electricity, no suction,” he said. Other challenges included lack of fresh water, as decomposing bodies threatened the well water; a ration of 1,000 calories per day for each team member; a second storm; dwindling medical supplies; and the proximity of a Communist faction, which came within 8 kilometers of the makeshift hospital.
Dr. Marty Kim, local OBGYN, delivered the team’s “walk off” when she delivered the first baby, Dr. Karch said. She went on to deliver 10 more, many of them C-sections. “All C-sections would have died,” he said.
The incredible effort of the MMM team paid off, he said, although he’ll never know how many more the team might have saved with the help of a generator confiscated by the TSA en route to the Philippines, or had they managed to arrive in Tanauan any sooner.
Dr. Karch spoke of triage, the assignment of degrees of urgency to patients to decide the order of treatment, as one of his most challenging experiences. Addressing his decision to have an elderly female amputee airlifted over other patients in equal need, Dr. Karch said, “I still don’t know if that was the right decision.”
Other team members also addressed the shock of re-introduction to Mammoth after their experiences in the Philippines. “It was more shocking to come back,” said MMM team member Katie Dease.
“You begin to realize the differential,” Dr. Karch said. “When you come out of a situation like this, your mind starts to open up.”
MMM handed operations in Tanauan over to two medical groups from Australia and Japan; those teams were later replaced by Doctors Without Borders. They’re “still there today, eight weeks later,” Dr. Karch said.
The team plans to complete their trip to Chiapas in May of this year.