Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Walley Wargolet & Brad McDougall

Eight clinic days into our mission to the Philippines and I am overwhelmed; not by the hard work, the heat, nor the lines waiting for us each morning, but by the gracious, humble and happy people I've been blessed to cross paths with. Each day I'm met with at least 500 smiles as I work with patients, pass people on the street or when a group of adorable kids, like these (that's Richie in the middle), who as we were closing down today came up and asked me where I was from and introduced himself. I'm also overwhelmed by how lucky I am to have been blessed with the ability to have had eye care since age three. While it broke my dad's heart his son had to wear "Coke bottle" glasses at a young age, that gift of sight allowed me to have the life I have. Each day as I auto-refract patients (technology that provides the eye doctors a starting RX) we come across at least a handful of people aged 9 to over 60, whose RX either matches or supersedes mine and they have never owned a pair of glasses. I can't even imagine my life without my corrected vision. As a related note and one of my favourite moments of the trip thus far, was being able to give an old pair of my glasses to a young man, who had an almost exact RX as mine, yet never owned a pair of glasses. He was both shocked (seeing life clearly for the first time) and very thankful for his "new" pair of glasses. (Shameless plug: please donate your old glasses, you may change someone's life). 
The other thing that sticks out to me is the happy people I see each day lost so much two years ago during typhoon Yolanda, but that has not stopped them from rebuilding and moving on with their lives. While I came here to help, I'm leaving with a life lesson taught to me by the men, women and children of the Philippine island of Leyte, no matter what comes in your path you find the strength to forge on, and you do it with a smile. Walley Wargolet

Adorable kids....Ritchie in the middle.

 A Universal Family
"Shah ahn, ecca du ha?"  I am sure that is not how it is written, but basically that is how it sounds to me all day: "one or two, which is better?"   I can't seem to get away from that phrase even ten thousand miles from my office.  My interpreter/assistant on this whole trip so far, a young registered nurse named Lynn, says it all day, and it is ringing in my ears as I write this.   Here is a picture of me and Lynn at the Tacloban Hospital. 
 When we arrived this morning to our clinic site in Tunauan, there were already hundreds and hundreds of people lined up outside.  The mass of bodies is a little daunting when we arrive.  But this is our seventh straight day, and so our team is starting to get comfortable with what to do and what their roles are. So within minutes of arrival the day is off and running.  We examine people in a stage by stage setting. The first stage is registering people with their name, age, chief compliant, etc, and measuring their visual acuity at distance and near. 

The next station, which is primarily where I work, is called triage. I assess each person's complaints and the acuity measurements and then divert people on to different paths- either prescribing simple reading glasses on the spot or sending them on to more extensive testing for refraction, or eye health problems. I enjoy this area, but it means I essentially interact with hundreds and hundreds of people each day- at least once in triage, sometimes twice when I refract, and occasionally three times when I help dispensing glasses. The level of human interaction is very intense, and the effect can be kind of mind-numbing.  I try my best to remember that I am treating individuals, and not get into a factory line mentality- but it is difficult when working with these numbers.  For example here is a picture of my "line up" in triage at one point this morning:
As much as I can, I try to remind myself of a Tibetan Buddhist mental exercise I have heard of, where you look at whomever you meet as someone who in a previous life was your mother. And I try to treat each person with that in mind. If I find myself in auto-mode, I stand back, take a deep breath, look into the next person's eyes directly and try to remember this principle. What if this was my mom standing before me. It keeps me in the moment, and being in the moment of contact with people who are suffering is what makes this exhausting work actually refreshing in the long run. 
It is not hard for any of us to imagine ourselves in a reversed position. As humans we all have a similar nature, and want the same things: happiness, love, health. It is fairly easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. What luck is it for me to be born into my life?  It is a razor's edge of destiny separating my life from theirs. 
Our leader Marina was born not too far from here, and she told me that each time she sees a little girl come through the clinic line she thinks, this could have so easily been me. 

Feeling this reality helps keep you open, full of solidarity as a human, and full of empathy. You can't help but feel and act with kindness.  Despite the fact I have a heat rash on my wrists and back, and a bumpy fungal infection brewing on my fingers :)

That sense of solidarity, and community is so evident here in the Philippines.  We have noticed a significant amount  of rebuilding and recovery all around since our last trip to this region, and I believe that one of the most important aspects in the recovery is the importance of family and community. 

And I don't exclusively mean family in terms of what you are born into, but rather a sense of family that is created.  Related or created.
It is not the the physical form of family, but the support, companionship, security and understanding of the people closest to us. It gives a sense of belonging which is so vital especially in such challenging times. 

Not only do the people here typically have large extended families, but they live in neighborhood groups called barangais. A barangais would be like a neighborhood (like Kits, or Yaletown, or Gastown) and everyone in the barangais acts as a group and watches out for one another.  A created family.  After the typhoon people banded together in their barangais to make sure they were safe, fed, and looked after. 

The universal sense of family is also evident in how people refer to each other. For example if you want to catch the attention of a woman in line my interpreter Lynn may say "ate (said ah-tay) come here". It means "big sister" even though she may not know them directly, it is a sign of respect and also, to me at least, a sign that we are all part of one family.  

In a similar way an older woman is called "Lola" (grandmother), and an older man called "Lolo" (grandfather).  Lynn assures me that not only is it appropriate for me to call people by these terms, but is is a sign of respect.  All day I also called one of our older lady volunteers "Maam Edna", and she smiled at me everytime I did. 

I feel a heavy sense of gratitude for the circle of friends and family that I have back at home, and recognize it as one of the most essential parts of my life.  Thank you to all of you. 

On a clinical front we continue to experience amazing moments peppered throughout each day: A woman who has never had glasses, who is a +8.00 at distance and a +10.00 at near.  For at least the last two decades she has not seen her hands clearly (not to mention the food she is eating, or anything within a a meter or two from her face!).
A 59 year old woman who is -9.00 (unlike the last lady, she can see her hands a few inches from her face but cannot recognize how many fingers you hold up more than 3 feet from her face)-who last had a pair of glasses when she was in high school. Why did she go almost her whole life without replacing them?  Honestly, I don't know: poverty?, prioritizing her children over herself?, adapting to not seeing and forgetting what it was like?  Seems unimaginable to me. 

Love you. 

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