Denise Reimer and a nurse were walking back to their hotel after seeing 150 or 200 patients that day.
They were part of a five-person team delivering medical care in and around Ormoc City, a town of about 200,000 people in the Philippines which had been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.
“It was hot, we hear this noise… It looks like a junk yard and they’re playing music. They see us and wave us in.”
There, people were singing karaoke.
“They clear a table, they’re roasting a pig – they bring us food and drinks, then they want us to get up and sing. When someone asks me to dance, of course my mom would say, ‘don’t ever say no,’’ she laughs. “We had a dance party for two hours and the woman singing was so good.”
As it turned out, this was Ormoc City’s public works party, explains Reimer, a Salmon Arm city councillor.
“I said, ‘well, I was at the city (Salmon Arm’s) Christmas party a week ago. It was a lot different than this,” she smiles.
“At the end, they handed out Christmas presents to the staff – a little bit of clothes – people were laughing, and having fun amongst all this chaos.”
This was just one example of the resilience that prevails, despite the catastrophe.
As a paramedic, Reimer went to provide assistance during the two weeks prior to Christmas with Canadian Medical Assistance Teams and Clarion Global Response.
She and the nurse from Vancouver she travelled with hit the ground running when they arrived.
After the flight, a three-hour ferry trip and having been awake for 30 hours, it was off to work in the sweltering heat – minus their luggage. It would arrive several days later.
Reimer received orientation training that first afternoon and, the next day, the five-member team she was a part of – a doctor, three nurses and a paramedic – saw more than 100 patients.
“There was a lot of wound management – they are in the rehabilitation phases, the rebuilding of homes,” she says, noting the team also saw respiratory illnesses and gave tetanus shots.
Because the typhoon hit the neighbouring city of Taclaban the hardest, most medical personnel went there, so the new teams were heading to surrounding areas to fill in the gaps.
Reimer had a chance during her stay to meet with the city’s rescue unit, who took her on a tour in their ambulance.
“They said when it hit, the winds were 300 miles an hour – I can’t even comprehend that. The one fellow, the team lead, for eight days he worked straight, responding to the needs of people. He lost kilos of weight. It’s like, ‘that’s what we do, that’s just what we do.’”
Working in a mobile clinic, Reimer and the medical personnel witnessed the heartbreaking destruction left in the area.
“I think the big thing was to see the devastation and people trying to rebuild. It’s hard to comprehend the destruction. Everything’s wiped out, everything’s dirty,” she says, adding that clean water had been restored.
One day the team had a little Filipino girl with them when they saw a road where the roofs from expensive houses had blown over to the poorer side of the road.
“She said, ‘if the rich won’t share with the poor, mother nature will do it for them,’” recounts Reimer.
“I’m always amazed at the kids. They’re so excited, cute little faces. That’s the world they’re in. Beautiful little kids and lots of them.”
Despite the destruction, citizens continually showed their gratitude.
“People were always thanking us, saying ‘you know we have each other,’ and they have a strong faith there. The Catholic faith is very strong.”
Reimer was shocked at the destruction of Ormoc’s city hall.
“How powerful the winds had been – I stand in our city hall and look at all the windows. Everything was smashed in, there were wires hanging all over the place…”
As for Reimer’s small personal disaster, which she calls ‘a First World problem,’ her luggage finally arrived, five days after she did.
“I had tried to do the whole Zen thing and not be attached to it,” she laughs, “but one day I said to Monica (her roommate from Vancouver), ‘I just want our bags to come.’ When they did arrive, it was like Christmas.”
Medical supplies were running low in the area, so Reimer was pleased that she and the other foreign personnel were able to leave trunks full of supplies.
“They were so grateful. It felt so good to say, ‘you can have this.’”
Asked what North Americans can do, she said fundraising efforts are good because it will be a long haul to repair the damage.
People also need to educate themselves about what goes on in other countries, she suggests.
“Over there, companies are going in, land is getting raped essentially, even before the typhoon hit, it was tough as there wasn’t a real opportunity for protection in the first place. I think we need to think about that, our corporations need to think about that when making decisions,” she says.
“People are in need, and so if a big company comes in and says, we’re going to mine and give you ‘x’ amount of dollars to the government, it’s a balancing act. How do you come to some kind of balance?”
She adds: “We have issues here but they’re First World problems. We have no idea what little people have, and they’re happy regardless. What are our important priorities?”