By Elaine Tassy
When Wally Winter, a nurse and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, boards a plane at Albuquerque International Sunport today, he won’t touch ground for about two days.
When he does, he’ll pick up where he left off a few months ago, nursing those touched by one of the worst typhoons in history, which ravaged the Philippines last November.
The 65-year-old native Oklahoman, who now lives in Bernalillo, spent six weeks volunteering around last year’s Christmas holidays in a poor hospital on an island in the Philippines hit hard by the typhoon, and today he goes back. When he arrives the morning of March 26, he’ll serve two more months on the same island, called Panay, through a Virginia-based nonprofit organization called Project Hope, the same one he served with before.
It sends doctors, nurses, pharmacy technicians and social workers to areas around the world in need of relief.
“I think it brings me closer to God and helps me be more thankful,” said Winter, describing what made him want to serve the first time and then return. “I feel I have been richly rewarded and I’ve really never had any major challenge in life, nothing devastating that I’ve been up against.”
Not so for the people of Tapaz City, located on the island of Panay. It was hard hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms recorded on the planet. It smashed the Philippines on Friday, Nov. 8, killing more than 6,200 people.
A few days later, Winter’s neighbor, also a registered nurse, who is from the Philippines, told him about Project Hope.
“He said, ‘What company is that?’ and he said, ‘I really want to serve. I really want to go,’” recalled Veronica Rodriguez-Jumalon, a surgical care nurse at Presbyterian Hospital who came to the U.S. from Cebu 20 years ago.
Winter sent in his application and was quickly accepted. His two-day journey began Dec. 18 and took him from Albuquerque to Dallas to Japan to Manila to Panay Island. Rodriguez-Jumalon, who spent the holidays with her husband and 17-year-old daughter, joined Winter’s team a month later.
The team consisted of 19 people, most from Massachusetts and California and ranging in age from 25 to 72. Many, including Rodriguez-Jumalon, stayed about three weeks and then had to return to jobs and family. Winter, who is unmarried and retired and does not have children, spent six weeks.
“I tried to simplify my life, so I can walk out the door at the last minute and I’m gone,” he said.
They worked in the 25-bed Tapaz District Hospital, which has broken windows and falling ceilings and no air conditioning. Locals, many who had never before seen a doctor, walked five miles to get care, Winter recalled during an interview in a Northeast Heights coffee shop a few days before his departure.
At the hospital, the team got to work, performing vaccinations, circumcisions and simple surgeries. They also educated more than 25 local health workers about tuberculosis, STDs, hepatitis, infection control and hand-washing techniques.
“At one point, we saw 600 patients in one day,” said Rodriguez-Jumalon. “We’d treat their coughs and colds; we did some wound care, and another doctor from Harvard brought an ultrasound machine … It’s really, really a poor area,” she added. “They had a wheelchair that was made of a garden chair with some tire(s) attached.”
Having survived the typhoon, many also had high blood pressure, she said.
Winter recalled a girl helping her father carry his comatose wife six miles on a hemp hammock to the hospital. The wife was revived with dextrose in the hospital, whose intensive care unit Winter described as a “broken-down little room,” and whose operating room had collapsed five years before.
At night, his team slept on air mattresses, four or five to a bedroom, or outside on the porch. They woke up at 4 a.m. so everyone could shower before heading to the hospital, where, besides caring for patients, they also painted the beds and walls and replaced mattresses.
“I saw how overwhelmed everybody was,” Winter said. “It was like, you don’t even know where to start.” The hospital had no clean water, so sometimes it was re-used, he said. In some parts of the town, there was no electricity, although the hospital did have it.
His service in Tapaz City seems like a natural extension of his work in the Air Force. His last deployment was to Iraq in 2005, and he oversaw nurses in a trauma center who medically evacuated those who had been hurt. During most of his military career, which took him through Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan during times of war and peace, he was an aeromedical evacuation nurse himself. “You saw those poor soldiers, they had no ears, no eyes – they had all been burned off – and you were there to hold their hand, tell them how much they are appreciated. You look at them and it just breaks your heart.”
After retiring from the Air Force, he worked at Rust Presbyterian and taught nursing at Apollo College and Grand Canyon University.
Going to the Philippines was quite a departure. “Project Hope picked that area because no one else wanted it,” he said. “We’d go into the far jungle areas and set up clinics,” intended for those too far away from the hospital, said Winter.
Project Hope pays for their flight – Winter’s ticket cost about $4,000 – housing, and meals, but otherwise doesn’t offer any salary.
A relative of the mayor of the town of Tapaz offered the volunteers a four-bedroom house to stay in. A cook prepared them meals including rice, vegetables mixed with cooked meat, lumpias (similar to eggrolls) and fried bananas. Winter used about $200 of his own money per month for other transportation costs and to buy food for people who had not eaten for days, he said.
Local soldiers escorted his team to the hospital every day because there had been a terrorist threat in the area, Winter said.
This time, Winter will return by himself, and will stay until May 29 in the same house. He will teach nurses some infant care and advance their skills in reading an EKG. He will also assess the work his team did during the first trip.
And, he said, “I’ll probably be able to sleep in the bed this time.”
Jumalon plans to return in June. “It’s not a long-term impact, but at least it makes impact to their lives,” she said of the work they are able to do. “It gives them hope.”
And, she added: “It’s a very rewarding, a very humbling experience as well. It made me realize how lucky we are over here with our health care.”