Just 58 hours after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, three Dartmouth alumni arrived in Tanauan, an especially devastated town of roughly 50,000 people on the island of Leyte.
As part of the 16-member group Mammoth Medical Missions, Sara B. May ’89, an emergency physician, David Page ’90, the group’s chief operating officer, and Martha Kim, ’95GSM, an obstetric gynecologist, helped lead a fast-paced, seven-day medical effort that eased pain, buoyed spirits, and saved lives. They were the first people from outside the village to arrive to help.
“NBC Nightly News” covered the group’s effort, and the on-the-ground reporter described the scene this way: “Wooden desks serve as operating room tables, and flashlights as overhead lights. Patients are everywhere. The work is nonstop. Doctors haven’t slept in four days. Upstairs, doctor Sara May from Seattle treats an 8-year-old girl whose leg was cut by flying debris.”
Page, the group’s logistical leader and a founder of Mammoth Medical Missions, was responsible for keeping the group together, safe, and functional. He helped situate the hospital in the town hall. He met every morning at 7 with the mayor, vice mayor, and other officials, who continued to work on the first floor of the partially roofed building. The mayor, Pel Tecson, made daily visits to Tacloban to pick up supplies (including, once, a generator), and Page strategized with him about how to distribute food.
The spirit of the people was something that especially impressed Page. “They’d come in with unbelievable wounds, broken bones, pieces of their skull hanging off, all kinds of gory stuff,” he said. “But not once were there disagreements, or any jockeying for position. A man had his leg amputated, and he walked out smiling. He was just happy to be alive. On the street, people would always be greeting you with a good morning, good afternoon, or good evening.”
A history and Spanish major at Dartmouth, Page also handled communications for the team. In a series of reports, he wrote that his team learned “that a high percentage of major trauma injuries were caused by roofing tin dislodged in the typhoon's record-breaking winds.” He shared pictures of villagers peacefully lining up for their water ration, and an image of a desolate playground, where a sixth-grade boy told him, “My school is broken.”
Kim, a graduate of the Geisel School of Medicine practicing in Mammoth Lakes, California, delivered more than 20 babies, including at least two by Caesarean section, with the help of four midwives from Tanauan. She told NBC, “We delivered the first baby that night, in the dark, with headlamps, on a desk. That’s how it started.” Kim also shared the heartbreaking story of a midwife named Golda, who continued to help, though she had lost both her four-year-old daughter and her sister in the typhoon.
May, now a physician in Seattle after practicing for eight years in Los Angeles, spent her 10-hour days dressing wounds, removing infected tissue, and helping with amputations. Like Page, May said that what she’ll always remember was the resilience, dignity, composure, and warm generosity of the townspeople. “Though many of them live on a cup of rice per day, they would bring us a giant pot of steamed rice to eat at night,” she said. “I don’t even know how they boiled the water. In the mornings, they brought us coffee.”
May continued, “We were supported by 10 to 15 people, who served as translators, or who helped with dressings, transportation, and setting up the hospital. All of them had either lost family members or had sick family members at home. Their spirit was unflagging.”
Page said his greatest concern was making the hospital sustainable. He told a British news station, “The fear is that as we decamp the local health authorities don’t have the infrastructure to keep it going.”
But a recent news report has shown the town hall hospital is staffed and has replenished its supply of antibiotics and other medicine. Also, fewer urgent surgeries are being performed. “When you hand off the hospital in the dark of night, you hope for the best. There’s no question it’s wonderful to hear they are making progress,” said Page.
When May first contacted the Dartmouth alumni office about her experience, she wrote, “It is our hope that sharing the documentation of this region and its people, along with our actions on the ground, may stimulate the global community at large to respond in such a way that the interior areas of Leyte and other islands receive the attention and relief they so desperately need.”