SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 28, 2014

Three for Philippine relief

After typhoon, North Shore residents volunteer to help

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — The disastrous typhoon that struck the central Philippines last November was the ill wind that blew some good for some Filipinos. And three North Shore residents were part of the effort.

Dr. Stephen Gardner, 64, of Salem, and nurses Christine Liebert, 39, of Salem, and Garry Armentia, 41, of Peabody, were in a second wave of volunteer medical personnel sent for three weeks to deal with the calamity through Project Hope, a group with 50 years of experience in the Philippines. They were recruited via the Center for Global Health at Massachusetts General Hospital, where they work.

“Different people from different medical disciplines go,” Gardner said.

It was a special opportunity for Armentia, who hails from the Philippines. He saw the suffering on TV and resolved, “If I get the chance, I really want to help the people. ... It’s one of my dreams to help my countrymen.”

The opportunity was appreciated no less by Gardner, who previously served in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and Liebert, who would find the Filipinos “the most generous, very kind people.”

The trio were part of a group of 18 sent on Dec. 21 to a mountainous area of Tacloban in the central Philippines. The people there hadn’t suffered as some coastal communities had, Armentia said, but trees were uprooted, power sources destroyed and crops ruined. A boy told of looking up to see his roof carried off. Others lost their homes and possessions.

“There was insomnia and anxiety,” said Liebert, a psychiatric nurse, the result of a storm greater than anyone had ever seen. “I did go over to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.” Happily, there was little of that, but the medicos found problems that would have existed regardless of Typhoon Yolanda, including diabetes, tuberculosis, hypertension and cancer.

Their efforts were limited. Liebert saw a mother whose daughter needed drugs to prevent a psychotic episode. Unfortunately, such drugs were unavailable.

“There really wasn’t much I could do for her,” she said.

Armentia, who also served as translator, said that circumcisions, a rite of passage in Philippine culture, were frequently performed as life returned to normal. “I really appreciated their resiliency,” he said.

Gardner found himself treating people “who had never seen a Western physician.” Technology taken for granted in America, like mammography machines and MRI devices, were absent in this rural area.

The day started at 6 a.m. as the staff awoke on air mattresses in tents to the sound of roosters crowing and dogs barking. They took a big breakfast and set out in vans over flooded and washed out mountain roads, traveling from village to village. Even where there was a hospital, facilities were damaged, Armentia said.

“They need equipment,” he said. He helped deliver a baby despite the lack of a delivery table. “The parents named her after one of our volunteers.”

The Filipino people were welcoming and grateful.

“They were incredibly gracious,” Gardner said. “They were always trying to bring us food and gifts.”

“Warm, smiling,” Armentia said.

All unmarried, the three had varied reasons for their participation. Armentia, now an American citizen, wanted the chance to help people in the land of his birth.

“I really feel fulfilled,” he said. Moreover, with the job done, he went south to visit family in Cotabato Province, an area untouched by the typhoon.

After they were gone, another team arrived to fill the void.

Liebert, who is much traveled, hopes to continue with this work, perhaps helping to establish psychiatric clinics around the world. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.

Gardner pointed to a deeper meaning for their efforts, citing a phrase from the Talmud, “Whosoever saves even one life, saves all of mankind,” and the motto of Mass General, going back to its founding, “When in distress, every man becomes our neighbor.”

It’s a world today where neighbors exist all over, Gardner believes. “Assist one person and it can have a powerful effect,” he said.

Armentia added, “I hope the world will not forget what happened in the Philippines.”

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.