Kaiser Permanente nurses return from Philippines medical mission

Nurse Kathleen Bonifas in Philippines
Nurse Kathleen Bonifas in Philippines

Local nurses aid Typhoon Haiyan victims

                Nurse Kharina Semana still chokes up thinking about why she went to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.  Nurse Kathleen Bonifas remembers the children who could still smile and play after living through the storm, and possibly losing relatives. Nurse Chris Gonzales is still in awe of the Philippine people, who lived through the worst and still maintained optimism.

                The three nurses are from Kaiser Permanente’s medical centers in the Silicon Valley, and recently, they spent two weeks caring for people in typhoon-devastated Tacloban and Carigara, two of the communities that were hit directly by the powerful storm. In all, 30 caregivers, doctors and nurses, from all of Kaiser Permanente Northern California made the medical mercy mission.

                “We set up “mobile clinics” in peoples’ front yards,” recalled Kathleen Bonifas, an Emergency Department nurse at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara. “We’d see 70-to-100 patients a day, mostly with wounds that weren’t healing or suffering from upper respiratory conditions.”

                Bonifas and the others clearly remember the air was filled with smoke, as families and communities burned debris from the typhoon. Nurse Semana learned that some of the burning was to drive mosquitos away from home, often wide open and devastated from the storm.

                “Apocalyptic,” says Chris Gonzales, an Emergency Department nurse at Kaiser Permanente San Jose, describing the damage scenes as he and the others first arrived at “ground zero” of Typhoon Haiyan. “I’d seen the pictures on television but I really wasn’t ready for the damage I saw.”

                Still, he and the others all agree that the Philippine people were amazingly positive and felt that the typhoon trauma would pass.

                Gonzales remembers “One woman who probably lost everything in the storm told me she was glad it didn’t hit Manila, where the devastation would have been much worse.” The typhoon made landfall about 300 miles south of the capital city.

                Gonzales and the others were volunteering with Relief International (www.ri.org), an American humanitarian group that responds to international disasters. They were essentially “filling in” for Philippine physicians and nurses, who were away from local clinics and hospitals, dealing with their own devastated homes and families.

                 “This was my first disaster,” said Kharina Semana, also an Emergency Department nurse at Kaiser Permanente San Jose. “I felt so bad for the Philippine people and wanted to go to help.”

                Semana still gets teary-eyed thinking about her 2 weeks in the typhoon disaster zone. She was able to communicate directly with the patients because she speaks Tagalog, one of the many languages common in the disaster area.

`               “One day, we were running a clinic in a church in Tacloban and I was the translator,” says Semana. “I think the patients were especially grateful that one of the American caregivers could speak their language.”

                At the Carigara clinic site, a few Philippine nurses volunteered as translators, guiding the Kaiser Permanente caregivers through the language and cultural twists.

                “One day we had five people with minor injuries, all from the same family,” says nurse Gonzales. “I couldn’t understand why, but I learned they’d all been riding a motorbike that crashed. Five on a motorbike? And that isn’t unusual here.”

                During the time in the Philippines, the Kaiser Permanente caregivers treated an estimated 3,000 patients. They repaired post-typhoon wounds and injuries, joyfully delivered a baby, cried together when one patient died, and entertained sick and well children with balloons made of latex gloves.

                “We instantly bonded as a team,” says nurse Bonifas, reflecting on the fact that most of the Kaiser Permanente team came from different hospitals in Northern California, and had never worked together before.

                And they brought high-quality and high-tech Kaiser Permanente medicine to the area: a portable battery-powered ultrasound machine helped quickly diagnose broken bones and other injuries, even without electricity.

                Despite the challenging heat, humidity, insects and damaged infrastructure, all the nurses say they’d return to the Philippines. Semana may travel again with her Philippine medical group.

                “I was happy to do something, but sad I didn’t do enough, “says Gonzales.

                “It’s what I do as a nurse,” says Bonifas.




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