Mammoth Medical Missions makes a return trip to the Philippines.
On December 5, one of two Mammoth Medical Missions (MMM) teams arrived in the Philippines three hours before Super Typhoon Hagupit hit land. The team of seven was prepared to ride with a police convoy south from Manila toward Samar, where it would arrive at a site, set up, hunker down, and wait for the second team of 11 to join 24 hours later.
“Then something weird happened,” recalled MMM co-founder and CEO Dr. Mike Karch; “Our driver didn’t want to drive.” As it turned out, terrorist group Abu Sayyaf had bombed the road. Soon after that, the New People’s Army, a Maoist insurgent group, also emerged as a threat to foreign relief efforts.
As a result, both MMM teams were detained in Manila for several days. By the time they were ready to head to the southern site, “The storm was actually downgraded,” Dr. Karch said. “The President made the call on the fourth day [Dec. 9] that foreign medical teams were not needed.”
After a whirlwind trip, MMM returned to the U.S. on Dec. 10. But Dr. Karch considered this mission, like the mission to the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the country, to be a success, if of a different kind.
He explained that the lack of need for foreign medical teams was the result of a striking difference in approach to preparing for Hagupit as opposed to Haiyan. One major difference: this time the government evacuated roughly 720,000 people.
“This is the model of how a government should behave,” Dr. Karch said.
Meanwhile the storm itself lost speed before hitting the Philippines, causing far less damage.
The end result of both factors: while about 7,000 died in last year’s typhoon, this year, thus far, only about 25 have been reported dead.
“You could look at this as a very expensive fire drill,” Dr. Karch said of the six day trip, “or you could look at this as a test of how quickly we could mobilize to address a disaster.”
He noted that last year’s response to Haiyan was a decision made en route to Chiapas, Mexico, where MMM provides free surgical procedures for one week each year. The team arrived in Tacloban, the worst-hit region in the Philippines, within 48 hours.
This year, most of the two teams mobilized from Mammoth after a call from the Philippines Embassy. The first team arrived in Manila within 16 hours of that call.
“We were somewhat critiqued by the World Health Organization because of what we did last year,” Dr. Karch said. “I see that as a positive … They really don’t do what we do, using a forward surgical team. The fact that we’re on their radar is a good thing.”
What’s more, he added, “One of the criticisms was that we couldn’t do it [respond so quickly] again. We just did it. A civilian mobile force surgical team can be done.”
And can be done even from a home base as isolated as Mammoth Lakes.
Dr. Sierra Bourne of Northern Inyo Hospital echoed Dr. Karch’s assessment of their accomplishment.
“Somehow, each individual person was able to relieve themselves of their duties in 24 hours and get on their way,” she said. “I know for me and for everyone, really, our colleagues and friends jumped at the opportunity to help so we could go, which was really great.”
Dr. Bourne, who was also part of the team that responded to Typhoon Haiyan, explained that preparing for a deployment to the Philippines is far from an easy task. Team members have to pack lightly, as if for backpacking, while also preparing for a lack of food, shelter, and medical supplies.
After packing, Dr. Bourne said team members got on a series of flights through Honolulu, Guam, and finally to Manila. “It took about a day, approximately, of travel,” she said. Once in Manila, although the team couldn’t head south as planned, she said MMM was far from complacent. “We did a lot of repacking, so that when we could go, weight wouldn’t be an issue,” she said.
When the government announced it would not need foreign medical teams, “We were all disappointed,” she said. “It wasn’t what we imagined, but you can’t be sad about people not being injured.”
Dr. Bourne said the response to this year’s typhoon saved lives. “We asked people last year [after Haiyan], ‘Why didn’t you leave?’” she said. “They said there were hurricanes here all the time. But they didn’t expect to have their roofs ripped off, or for the storm to bring waves more than a story high into their towns.”
Considering how many were willing to evacuate this year, “I think the Filipino people and the government got together and were able to avert a huge disaster,” she said.
MMM Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer David Page noted that the teams’ response to Hagupit was only one part of its larger mission. He and Dr. Martha Kim flew to the Philippines from Chiapas, where they were planning two additions to the annual Chiapas trip in May of 2015.
The first, a week of education, and the second, a day of mass casualty training.
Page said the two weeks were made possible by the Bishop Rotary clubs, with whom MMM is in the process of writing a Rotary International grant for three years of medical training in Chiapas. Ramona Delmas of Bishop Sunrise Rotary said that other Rotary clubs are also participating with financial assistance.
“The idea is we’re trying to get beyond being just a medical missions group,” Page said. The surgical week in Chiapas “is great for the 50 to 100 people who are able to get help while we’re there, but it doesn’t improve their health system; it doesn’t train doctors. We want to build it out as a three year rural health program.”
Dr. Karch said the teaching week will include lessons on techniques in surgery, sterilization, and OB/GYN.
Dr. Bourne added that, with enough money raised by the Rotary, “We can get them an ultrasound … Which is not cheap, if you can imagine.”
Such funding—and attention—is needed in Chiapas, considering it’s within the most active seismic zone in Mexico, and is also one of the poorest states in Mexico.
“They’re as vulnerable as the Philippines,” Page said.
Although MMM will continue keeping an eye on the Philippines, Page said Chiapas will be the region MMM watches the most closely. If there are any disasters elsewhere in the world that need attention, “One of the things we’ve done is we’ve built up NGO partnerships,” he said, such as with Direct Relief and AirLink. “So when something comes up in the world, wherever it is, we’re on the list of organizations that will be called. We can continue to consider these calls on a case by case basis.”