Dr. Romeo Bituin: Doctor of Calamities

I just had to share this story I wrote (for People’s Tonight) about a doctor’s experiences during a medical mission after a typhoon hit Quezon Province in 2004.

FROM the 1990 killer earthquake in Baguio, Rizal Day Bombing in Manila to the aftermath of Typhoons “Winnie” and “Yoyong” in Quezon Province, Dr. Romeo Bituin has been there to help the dying and survivors of calamities.

The 47-year-old coordinator of Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital to the Health Emergency Management Staff (HEMS) of the Department of Health, Dr. Bituin or simply “Starsky” to colleagues, has always felt the need to be in places where disasters took place.

“Hindi ko alam kung bakit dinadala ako ng Diyos kung saan may disaster,” Bituin initially told People’s Tonight.

To the man who has been in the medical profession for more than two decades now, no special occasion would delay the call of duty, not even his birthday.

So in the morning of Dec. 4, even before he could plan things for his 47th birthday, Bituin was flying with two male nurses and a utility personnel to the typhoon-ravaged areas of Quezon on board a military chopper to bring medicine and treat evacuees from several affected barangays in Infanta.

“When we left for Quezon, walang nakakaalam na birthday ko. Nagspend ako for the first time ng birthday ko sa disaster area. Ang sabi nga ni Dr. (Carmencita) Banatin, chief of HEMS,’ang swerte mo…ang dami mong natulungan sa birthday mo’,” the teary-eyed anesthesiologist said.

“Sometimes parang naging emotional ka rin doon (Infanta, Quezon)… masuwerte tayong mga taga- Manila hindi natin naranasan ang ganon pero nagrereklamo tayo sa baha lang. Baha lang ‘yon pwede kang lumangoy…sa mud hindi ka makakalangoy…mamamatay talaga ang tao,” he said while trying to control his emotions.

Bituin and his three companions were the first group of medical personnel deployed by the DOH at the height of typhoon “Yoyong” in Quezon.

“From Camp Gen. Nakar inairlift kami papuntang Infanta. It was one of the hardest hit ng typhoon. At least 29 out of 36 barangays in Infanta were affected. Sa Gen. Nakar at Real, may portions of road na pwedeng daanan, may ac cessible road na pwedeng dumaan ang tricycle. Sa Infanta wala, ang putik hanggang tuhod. Paglapag ng chopper, iba na ang amoy ng paligid. Masangsang… malansa… normal na sangsang ng patay. Marami raw na buried sa mud pero hindi nila alam kung saan,” said Bituin as he described the place.

Barefooted evacuees ran agog to the waiting helicopter for safety. But patients needing urgent medical attention were given priority to be airlifted to evacuation sites.

Bituin, being the leader of the four-man team, requested military personnel to secure the gym where they put up the makeshift treatment center and where team from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) handed out relief goods. Barangay officials assisted the group in listing down patients with priority needs.

The medical team from DOH provided antibiotics, anti-venom, anti-tetanus, IV fluids to patients needing them.

For four days, Dr. Bituin’s group attended to children who are severely dehydrated, patients with loose bowel movement caused by acute gastroenteritis due to lack of potable water supply, persons with punctured wound, lacerated wound in the eye and head, trauma, fractures, dog bites and snake bites.

“Ang mga evacuees kung ano ‘yung damit na suot nila nang marescue sila, ‘yun pa rin ‘yung suot-suot nila habang nagpapagamot sila,” Bituin recounted as he shook his head in dismay. “Siguro ang importante sa ngayon kung paano sila mabubuhay, ‘yung hindi sila magkakasakit.”

Bituin’s group also managed to help local hospital personnel run the lone health facility in the area, which is about a kilometer away from the gym near the Poblacion. The groups make do with available hospital equipments left of the flood aftermath. The nurses were able to save only a handful gadget since they primarily move the patients to higher portion of the hospital.

The hospital also served said as their place of rest at night.

“Main mission namin kung paano mapapatakbo uli ang hospital. Ang Infanta lang ang may district hospital. During normal times before the disaster sa Infanta dinadala ang mga pasyente coming from Real and Gen. Nakar. Walang electricity at tubig sa hospital. Walang linen. There was no communication at all in the area,” Bituin recalled.

“Mahirap din ang paglalakad sa municipality proper. Walang means of transportation. Ang mahirap doon may mga equipment ka pang dala at pasyente na kailangang i-evacuate to safer ground,” he said.

Bituin and the nurses settled with their meager food provision and sometimes relief foods given by evacuees themselves.

“For four days wala kaming lunch, we find time to eat late lunch and early dinner at every 5 p.m. Hindi ka makakaramdam ng gutom dahil ang gusto mo makapunta ka agad sa pupuntahan mong lugar. The city mayor was kind enough to assist us during our mission in Infanta,” he said.

Bituin, who granted the interview, before the emergency meeting of HEMS coordinators held at the East Avenue Medical Center last Friday, said that epidemic was indeed looming in the affected areas as he observed the lack of potable water supply and proper excreta disposal for both human and solid waste.

“Nang umalis kami marami na ang nagcocomplain ng acute gastroenteritis, matanda at mga bata,” he said.

The former military doctor said that as of last week two more response teams from the DOH composed of epidemiologists and sanitary engineers arrived in Quezon to help.

“Kumpleto na ang mga tao na nagsusurveillance ng mga sakit doon,” Bituin said.

The medicine graduate at the Perpetual Help College in Binan, Laguna, said that aside from medicine and food supplies, survivors need psychological help from experts.

“Kawawa ang mga tao doon, naglalakad sila ng nakatungo. May psychological impact sa kanila ang mga pangyayari. Kailangan nilang ma-debrief. We already sent people from the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) para iaddress ang depression at anxiety ng mga tao. Lalo na kung umuulan ng malakas…’yung mga tao takot na takot kasi baka bumaha daw ulit, ganun na ganon daw ang nangyari bago magkalandslide,” he said.

Bituin, who had disaster management trainings in the United Kingdom and the United States in 2001 and 2002 respectively, said that each person who survived the landslide and flood had harrowing experience to share.

“Nagtulungan sila,” referring to survivors, “‘Yung iba hinigit nila sa baha mula sa bubong ng bahay. Kahit hindi nila kakilala tinutulungan nila. Kaya marami rin sa kanila ang nakasurvive hindi kagaya sa Ormoc. Karamihan kasi ng bahay sa Ormoc noon ay gawa sa light materials. Sa Quezon, karamihan ng bahay ay may second floor kaya nakaakyat ang iba sa bubong ng bahay,” he noted.

The doctor from Fabella Hospital also shared what he learned from emergency management.

“Presence of mind is important. Ang unang isesave mo ay buhay hindi gamit. Dapat alam ng mga tao kung ano ang mga gagawin in times of natural calamities. May areas na dapat kung saan magkikita sa oras ng emergency. Dapat may mga drills, exercises for any kind of event gaya ng Iindo!, baha at landslides. Time is important… kailangan mabilisan,” he said.

For fellow medical workers in the same line of mission, Bituin has this advise: “Ang pinakaimportante huwag silang makalimot magdasal… ‘yung pakikipagkapwa-tao especially during these times. Dapat marunong kang makisama sa tao. Hindi lang para makiemphatize, kailangan may ginagawa ka rin.”

He further said, “Personnally, na-enhance ng experience ko sa Quezon ang kahalagahan ng pakikipagkapwa-tao. For every disaster or incident na napuntahan ko, there is a new experience, new lesson na nakakapagpadagdag sa wisdom mo. Although sometimes, kapag naaalala ko ‘yung mga nakita ko doon, nagiging emotional ako. Hindi ko maiwasan ang maluha para sa mga nasalanta sa Quezon.”

When asked if he would go back to Infanta for another medical assignment, Bituin simply smiled and said, “I’m planning to go back there next week. I’ll show the people there I’m true to my words. Gusto kong makita na masaya na uli sila , hindi na umiiyak, hindi na depressed.” – Miriam V. Torrecampo

December 26, 2004

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