by Edwin Quinabo
Charitable work never stops for the Ohana Medical Mission, Inc. (OMM) even as the world wades through COVID-19 restrictions.
In February 2020 during the global outbreak of COVID-19, OMM was wrapping up its 15th mission to Ilocos, Philippines. Medical and lay volunteers had already visited Ilocos Note (Pasuquin, Dadaeman, Sarrat, Banna) and Ilocos Sur (Cabugao, Cuantacla, Sinait, San Esteban). But as the group prepared to do its last mission work in Bagong Silang (a resettlement district for Filipinos from slum areas in Tondo, Manila), the Department of Health imposed restrictions on group gatherings.
OMM management had no choice but to cancel its last part of the mission to Bagong Silang,” JP Orias, OMM Executive Director, told the Filipino Chronicle. “Medicines and vitamins for that area were left with partnering local doctors to properly administer them,” he said.
As restrictions were entrenched in the U.S. and the Philippines, OMM continued to do feasibility studies to implement for future face-to-face missions. Planning and logistics prior to missions are essential and usually takes about two years for each mission. OMM works with Hawaii’s local community and coordinates also with organizations, officials and medical professionals in the Philippines.
In 2021, the group still was not allowed to travel so it conducted its first-ever virtual mission under the guidance and leadership of Dr. Carolina Davide, who was OMM’s president at the time, and sister Patricia Nurimarna in the Philippines.
The virtual medical mission took place on December 21, 2021. OMM provided medicines, eyeglasses, toys, vitamins in cooperation with the AMPNPP and St. Damian Center in Bagong Silang, Orias said.
Dr. Ian E. Guerrero, current president of OMM, who was also involved in coordinating the virtual mission, said “we were able to put smiles on the beneficiaries of that mission.”
He said, “our face-to-face mission was temporarily put on hold at the height of the pandemic but despite the odds and uncertainties, we were able to innovate and execute our first successful virtual mission.
Dr. Guerrero told the Filipino Chronicle OMM has two missions this December. “We have minor missions in place [one] at Sinait, in Ilocos Sur, care of Hermie Gaspar, our current secretary; and [another one] at Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte, headed by Arnold Villafuerte MD, our current vice president with his wife Teodora Villafuerte. Both of these missions are happening this December. These missions are supported by OMM.”
OMM’s 2023 medical mission
OMM will launch its first full-scale, face-to-face mission from January 9-14, 2023. Dr. Guerrero said from January 9-12 OMM will be at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. UST Medical Alumni Association of America is co-sponsoring this leg of the mission. “OMM will cater to the deserving families and barangays within the vicinity of UST. This mission is medical and surgical in nature in form,” he said.
“Then on January 13, OMM will be at Payatas, Quezon city and January 14 at Bagong Silang, Caloocan city. We will be providing free medical consultation and medications, as well as performing minor surgical procedures and free eyeglasses to recipients in these areas,” Dr. Guerrero said.
An OMM mission usually is comprised of 60 volunteers from physicians, nurses, a pharmacist and lay staff support. A mission usually lasts no longer than two weeks, the average length of time that volunteers can leave their medical practices.
Besides on-site free medical procedures and consultations, OMM typically donates tens of thousands worth of prescription medicine, medical supplies, eyeglasses, and basic necessities like food. They will also give out vitamins from one to six months supply. Mission volunteers pay for their own transportation and lodging.
“Since its inception, the OMM has had 15 medical missions in the Philippines from Ilocos Norte down to Davao for an estimated total of 45 mission days covering almost 100 urban and remote places. These missions served an average of 1000-1500 patients of the lower economic pyramid per day,” Orias said.
“To cover the local physician community, OMM usually hosts dinners with Continuing Medical Education (CME) updates on hypertension (HTN), Diabetes (DM), Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), Parasite Disease and other relevant topics. OMM also provides each mission ‘Humanitarian Gifts Bags’ of staple goods and favorite food for the poorest families of the mission area,” Orias said.
OMM usually makes one or two mission a year.
Dr. Guerrero said OMM has provided free medical, surgical, optical, dental, health education and humanitarian services to underprivileged communities from Luzon to Mindanao, Philippines.
“The membership at OMM is diverse and inclusive with different backgrounds but we’re unified in our passion and commitment to volunteer and serve to the ‘least of our brethren.’ We exist because of the love and support of the volunteers, the community, and generous donors,” Dr. Guerrero said.
Donors range from corporate to individual from both the U.S. and Philippines.
Each mission usually is comprised of a mix of experienced veterans who’ve done many mission tours and new, often first or second-time volunteers.
Orias said often the places OMM decides to visit in the Philippines are areas where people in Hawaii invite them to go. In such circumstances, “the local community in Hawaii also help to raise funds to buy medicines and supplies to be used in missions,” Orias said.
The Ohana spirit
Ohana in Hawaiian means family or extended family. OMM’s charitable work reflects the loving care that you’d give to an extended family member.
During OMM’s missions it’s also typical for medical professionals to bring along a family member to assist them with lay work and to teach that member the value of giving back to the community.
Dr. Davide, past OMM president and current board member, has done seven missions. She recalls two separate missions that family members were involved in.
“I started doing missions in 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit Cebu and Tacloban, Philippines. It was memorable since it my first mission. I did it with my daughter, Anna, who was at 10th grade at that time. The conditions there were not ideal, but it was a sure thing to experience together as a great bonding opportunity between mother and daughter. Now she is now in first year medical school,” David said.
In 2015, she did another mission with family (her sister who is based in Hong Kong and her two daughter), this time in Bicol, Philippines.
Her sister-in-law joined Dr. David during a medical mission in her hometown of Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines in 2016, where she also got help from her elementary classmates. “I used to volunteer in the town’s health center there when I just finished my internship in the Philippines. It was quite a sentimental experience,” David said.
Connection to Philippines
Many of OMM physicians and volunteers have deep connections to the Philippines. Current OMM President Dr. Guerrero is from the Philippines and received his medical education and residency there.
He first learned of OMM in 2013 while doing a preceptorship under Dr. Charlie Sonido, former president of the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii (PMAH) and frequent OMM volunteer-physician and coordinator. OMM, incorporated in 2009, is the medical mission arm and affiliate of PMAH.
“I was a newly migrated immigrant at that time. In one of our encounters with Dr. Sonido, he interjected that Typhoon Yolanda struck the Visayas region, and that OMM must include in its itinerary going to the Visayas for medical and humanitarian outreach on top of OMM’s already pre-planned mission in the Ilocos.”
Typhoon Yolanda was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded and is one of the deadliest Philippine typhoons on record, killing at least 6,300 people.
Dr Guerrero said he didn’t go on that mission but he played a part in sorting out and packaging medicines and supplies. When volunteers returned, he heard stories they told him how happy and fulfilling their hearts were. “Never did I know that I would soon be part of this organization in the years to come.”
Dr. Guerrero’s first mission was in 2015 which covered Bagong Silang and Agudo, Mandaluyong, both in Metro Manila, Gerona in Tarlac, Naga city, Legaspi city and Bacacay, Philippines, all in the Bicol region. “We were able to put happy smiles to the underprivileged communities we served. This has re-ignited my desire to participate on these missions as I’m no stranger to community outreach and rendering free medical services since medical school,” he said.
“My most memorable encounter was in Bacacay, Albay when I was able to see a family of seven who traveled several miles away through wooden boats just to have their medical conditions checked. They don’t have a physician in their localities, and they took this opportunity of a lifetime. They were able to get medicines appropriate for them.
“But what struck me most is when I had to refer the breadwinner of the family, the father, to a Tertiary center for further work-up of a lingering incapacitating illness. The family felt devastated about hearing the news and they wouldn’t want to leave their pillar behind. I provided not only compassionate care for them, but emotional support to the family as a whole,” Dr. Guerrero recalls.
Donating, volunteering, and first Charity Ball
Dr. Guerrero said anyone can be a volunteer at OMM. “There is diversity in the composition of our volunteers and members of the organization. It is an all-inclusive group. Everyone in OMM shares the passion and commitment to help underserved communities. There is no absence of work at OMM. From simply giving your humble monetary donation to packing up medical supplies, we recognize the significant role it plays in ensuring the success of OMM.”
He said the composition of OMM’s executive board and its members are a group of philanthropists and dedicated individuals who tirelessly share their time, effort and experience despite their busy and hectic schedules. He said OMM has positions from president down to different committee levels each working to promote our organization, solicit donations and crafting policies and guidance for future missions.
“We have a group of advisers as well, most of whom have had leadership role at OMM in the past who provide sound advice and input into everything that we do.”
Orias said OMM is launching its first charity ball in February 2023. These will replace its successful golf tournaments which ran for three years. These donations are used to pay for medicines and supplies. OMM also accepts donations from drug and medical supplies companies.
Dr. Guerrero said OMM would not be possible without the generous support of its donors who believe in the organization’s mission and vision, and the dedication and hard work of volunteers.
Dr. Davide said she’s been volunteering with OMM to give back to those less fortunate than us. “It’s payback for all the blessings I ‘ve gotten in my life. It’s giving back ‘till it hurts.’”
Philippines and healthcare
The World Health Organization (WHO said the Philippines’ health system needs financial stability, well-trained human resources (along with proper salary), proper information/data, and proper maintenance of up-to-date facilities to be able to deliver quality services, medicine, and research.
It described the country’s spending as comparatively low at 4.7% of their GDP on health while USA and Canada spent 17.1% and 10.4%. But it also recognized the Philippines’ efforts to improve and cited In 2019, the Universal Health Care (UHC) Bill was signed into all, aiming to provide proper healthcare services for all.
Like the country’s inequality in wealth, its healthcare is massively inequal between the rich and poor, experts say. The rich can afford private hospitals and private insurance. For many average Filipinos these are unaffordable.
The quality of healthcare is said to generally decline as you go further out to rural areas where there is a lack of infrastructure and investment in hospitals and clinics. Rural medical facilities are basic, rudimentary, and understaffed. Most of them are inadequately equipped to treat serious health conditions and the next hospital could be hundreds of miles away. If rural Filipinos cannot afford to travel to the big city hubs for medical care, often they just do without treatment entirely, even when a serious health ailment is present.
According to the United Nations Development Program, Manila, eight out of 10 Filipinos never had a physical or medical checkup in their lives.
OMM targets both impoverished rural areas and cities.
Former Philippines Health Director Dr. Eric Tayag said all health centers in the country still need to improve leadership and governance, health financing, health information, availability of medicines, vaccines, technology, human resource, and delivery of services.”
There is also a shortage of medical staff, doctors and nurses, throughout the country. The Philippines’ health care worker-to-population is 19 per 10,000, below WHO’s standard at 45 health workers for every 10,000 persons.
The shortage is attributed to low pay of health workers and health workers going abroad for work.
To some OMM medical volunteers originally from the Philippines, they say doing medical missions is one of their ways of giving back to the country they left behind.
For information on how to donate to or become a volunteer of OMM, visit the Philippine Medical Association of Hawaii’s website at pmah-hawaii.org under the Ohana Medical Mission section.
by Edwin Quinabo