Physician escapes Phillipine typhoon

MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Kristofer Anderson became accustomed to the raucous rainstorms that would pop up almost every afternoon while volunteering his medical services earlier this month in the small village of Santa Fe, on the island of Leyte in the Philippines.
Little did the Middlebury-based physician know that those rainstorms would be a prelude to the cataclysmic deluge wrought by Yolanda, a category 5 typhoon that killed thousands of Filipinos and leveled entire villages during its scourge.
Anderson was one of the lucky ones. He was able to escape the country as the typhoon hit, leaving him thankful to be safe but also sad that he is now far away from his Filipino patients when they need him the most.
“It’s disappointing that I’m not there right now to help in a real emergency,” said Anderson, who is encouraging the Addison County community to quickly send aid to the Philippines to help in its rebuilding efforts.
Anderson, an ear, nose and throat physician who lives in Addison, had been looking for an opportunity to “give back.” He went on-line earlier this year to peruse international volunteering opportunities and found “Volunteer for the Visayans Inc. (VFV),” a registered nonprofit, non-government organization located in Tacloban City, the Philippines. VFV solicits resources and helpers to assist in various child welfare, community development, education and public health efforts in Tacloban and other communities on the island of Leyte.
Anderson relished the idea of lending his medical expertise to aid people in one of the poorest areas of the Philippines. He also liked the fact that it was a week-long mission — an amount of time that fit into his schedule. So he packed up a box of medical supplies courtesy of Porter Medical Center and flew out to Tacloban City (population of around 200,000)  on Nov. 3. Upon his arrival, he was placed with a Filipino family and was assigned to a free clinic in Santa Fe, a small town of around 18,000 residents located approximately 40 minutes away.
His services were very much needed. The clinic had not had a doctor on staff since August, the result of a retirement. So Anderson and another visiting physician from Missouri opened the clinic’s doors to a steady procession of local patients needing health care services suffering from afflictions ranging from yellow diarrhea to tuberculosis.
“We saw a lot of children,” Anderson recalled of a patient stream of around 40 per day.
“We mostly saw respiratory infections,” he added. “Someone had brought some (malady) in and it was going through the town.”
The two physicians successfully fielded the cases that came their way. They saw their share of foot lacerations, respiratory infections, and cases of heart disease. The patient load was usually heaviest in the morning and then would taper off in the afternoon, when the random rainstorms set in.
“They were very appreciative,” Anderson said of the patients.
It was indeed a pretty predictable schedule until weather forecasts brought word of a seismic storm. The fall and early winter are typhoon season in the Philippines, storms that can pack gale-force winds and many inches of rain. But the approaching storm, Yolanda, was organizing itself as one of the most powerful typhoons to ever reach landfall in recorded history.
The forecasts were so daunting that Anderson was urged to pack his bags to leave Tacloban City on Thursday, Nov. 7 (instead of Nov. 8), for a flight out of the capital of Manila on Saturday, Nov. 9.
Anderson took the message seriously, though others were apparently somewhat cavalier about the approaching storm.
“A lot of the young people were saying, ‘This happens 20 times a year; we get typhoons all the time,’” Anderson said.
But at the same time, Anderson noted that older Filipinos could sense something extraordinary was about to happen.
“The 70-year-olds were worrying,” Anderson said of the family matriarchs. “They were concerned, and obviously had good reason to be.”
Indeed, Leyte province bore the full wrath of Yolanda when it struck on Nov. 8. Winds measured at almost 200 miles per hour decimated entire villages, erasing rickety homes and blowing sturdier buildings off their foundations.
Media reports early this week placed the death toll at around 4,000, with another 1,200 listed as missing. Massive power outages, no potable water and a lack of shelter are just a few of the problems that Filipinos are trying to overcome.
Anderson is concerned that many of the people he met and treated are either among the homeless or dead.
“I don’t think a ton of people evacuated,” he said. “I don’t think many people expected the storm would do what it did.”
Many of those who dutifully went to evacuation centers did not escape Yolanda’s impacts.
“The evacuation centers were destroyed,” Anderson noted.
Once in Manila, Anderson started receiving reports of the dire conditions of the people he had just left.
“We actually tried to come back,” he said of his desire to return to Tacloban to help out. “Philippine Airlines just laughed in our face and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to fly in there.’ The airport had been destroyed.”
Anderson called the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines to see if he could help through American channels. His offer was politely declined, given the weather conditions and plans for U.S. Marines to deploy to the hardest hit areas with food and other supplies.
“I can’t blame them,” Anderson said. “We were now 300 miles away (from Tacloban).”
He sent e-mails to nurses at the free clinic with instructions on what to do with the medication he had left. He is not yet sure if those messages were received. And as of Nov. 15, Anderson had still not learned about the fate of Santa Fe and its inhabitants. Recovery efforts have begun in Tacloban and will fan out to the smaller, surrounding communities.
“There are very few buildings that are undamaged,” Anderson said of what he has heard about Tacloban. “Cathedrals are half collapsed.”
He fears for the fate of people who tried to ride out the storm in substandard abodes, such as shacks and little roadside stores. Survivors will be vulnerable to diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, he said. Yolanda toppled thousands of coconut trees and ruined many acres of crops in a rural economy that depends on agriculture.
“The water just came over the road and flattened them,” Anderson said of the modest homes. “As packed as (Tacloban) was, if people didn’t evacuate, I could see them questioning if (up to) 10,000 people were killed.”
It’s hard for Anderson to digest the post-typhoon images he is now seeing on television.
“We are having a little bit of survivor guilt,” Anderson said of himself and his fellow volunteers. “We’re doctors, we were there. Do I want to be in the strongest typhoon ever to hit land? No … but it feels kind of bad knowing there is something we could do.”
Anderson is now focusing on sending resources to organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross to get aid to the Philippines. He is writing letters to other local physicians, churches and other organizations to do the same.
“These are very nice people, very friendly, very welcoming and they are living in a nightmare right now,” Anderson said. He noted that U.S. dollars can go a long way toward buying the basics for survival. Anderson recalled spending 2,000 pesos for several hundred Prednisone pills to restock the clinic during his visit.
“They told me, ‘Wow, (2,000 pesos) is a lot of money.’ It’s $50,” he said. “That’s what it costs me to fill my gas tank.”
Anderson looks forward to returning to the Philippines for another health care mission. He realizes such a trip will have to wait until larger relief efforts have restored basic necessities for Filipino residents.
“I would love to go back,” Anderson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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