Nurse returns from Philippines disaster with renewed zeal

By: Mike Creger

Six nurses began a journey to the Philippines earlier this month. They were strangers in a land torn by Typhoon Haiyan in November. They came out of their two-week medical mission as a team.

That’s how Duluth nurse Anna Rathbun described her time hopping from makeshift medical facilities across Panay Island, which took a direct hit from one of the fiercest and deadliest typhoons in history.

“We ended up working really well together,” Rathbun said of her tour with five other nurses — three from the East Coast, one from Arizona and one from California. She also worked with nurses from other countries.

Rathbun is a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Luke’s hospital, a job that had her well prepared for whatever might come a world away.

“Nurses, especially intensive care nurses, learn to work as a team,” she said. “It’s so important to be flexible and adaptable to change.”

The team went from village to village across the island, setting up in whatever building still was standing, mainly churches and schools.

Rathbun said her only expectation was that she would be treating wounds from the typhoon. She was surprised to see so many people come in for chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and respiratory conditions.

“It was everywhere we went,” she said. “We got the biggest thanks for the smallest things,describe the image like handing out vitamins.”

She provided wound and respiratory care and helped deliver a baby.

Those coming to the islands had their own health issues to deal with, Rathbun said.

“The air quality is so poor that we all had sore throats and stuffy noses almost immediately,” Rathbun said. “I got a sinus infection and upper respiratory infection.”

Rathbun is one of 3,200 nurses from across the country who signed up for a relief effort organized by National Nurses United. It raised money to pay for expenses nurses would encounter traveling to the Philippines. Rathbun couldn’t have gone otherwise.

She had just a two-day notice that she had been chosen for a mission leaving Dec. 9. She was grateful her manager at St. Luke’s was understanding and could grant the leave from work. “I had the go-ahead from day one,” she said.

“It was a whirlwind,” she said of preparing for her journey.

“I’ve always wanted to do some disaster work,” Rathbun said. “I became a nurse to help people.”

But her mother was nervous about her going overseas, Rathbun said. Now that her daughter is home and she has seen and heard of the work she did, Mom is OK.

“She’s really proud,” Rathbun said.

Coming home last Saturday was “reverse culture shock,” Rathbun said.

“You spend two weeks with people who have absolutely nothing. They lost everything,” she said. “And here, we have everything.”

That was especially true in coming home during the last commercial rush before Christmas, a holiday that had a deeper meaning for her after Panay Island.

“I follow local stories and what’s going on (in the U.S.) and I want to say, ‘Hey, there are people on the other side of the world who need help.’”

Anyone who has thought of doing a similar mission should do so, Rathbun said without hesitation.

“If you’re thinking about doing it, take the plunge,” she said. “It will change your life.”

She didn’t want to leave Panay because there is so much medical work still to be done. She’s assuaged a bit by the knowledge that the National Nurses United effort is a long-term one.

“The goal is to continue to provide care,” Rathbun said.

Her group was the third wave to enter the typhoon area. The next group will come from California, New York and Texas. They are expected to depart in early January. Nurses from 50 states and 19 nations have volunteered to help.

“There is still so much work that needs to be done,” Rathbun said. “People can’t afford their medical care, they can’t afford their meds. A lot more has to go on.”

Source: Duluth News Tribune

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