First-class hospital in a disaster zone

The coastal town of Basey in Samar province was of one the areas that saw the most damage when it was hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
The coastal town of Basey in Samar province was of one the areas that saw the most damage when it was hit by Typhoon Haiyan in November. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Eight-year-old Recto Villanege lies inside the International Commission for The Red Cross emergency hospital in Basey. Recto was scalded by boiling water and was sent to the hospital for treatment. All patients receive free treatment at the hospital
Eight-year-old Recto Villanege lies inside the International Commission for The Red Cross emergency hospital in Basey. Recto was scalded by boiling water and was sent to the hospital for treatment. All patients receive free treatment at the hospital .The old Basey hospital was partially destroyed by the typhoon and hence not able to serve the locals. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
A field hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Basey, Samar province, has admitted about 3,500 patients since it first opened in late November. At least one surgery is performed here daily and the outpatient clinic rec
A field hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Basey, Samar province, has admitted about 3,500 patients since it first opened in late November. At least one surgery is performed here daily and the outpatient clinic receives about 200 patients each day. -- PHOTO: ICRC

Built in the middle of scenic Basey town in Samar province in the Philippines is a field hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Flanked by the sea to the south and a 100-year-old church to the north, it is an oddity in that place.

The hospital is a group of some large, bomb shelter-like tents that sit inside a covered basketball court. The tents are divided according to the purposes they serve.

There is a maternity ward, a tent where surgeries are performed, another one that houses an X-ray and other scanning equipment, a laboratory, and an outpatient clinic.

What makes the hospital an oddity is that it is a first-class hospital in the middle of a third-class municipality where three out of five of its inhabitants live below the poverty line and can barely afford basic health care.

The 20-bed hospital’s surgical, scanning and laboratory equipment are state-of the-art, its pharmacy well-stocked, and it is run by a retinue of doctors from Germany and Norway, all with impeccable credentials – and possibly astronomic salaries – back home, and some 50 Red Cross nurses and volunteers.

It is as efficient, organised and clean as any hospital in Singapore. It will probably cost as much as any hospital in the city state, except that it provides – absolutely free of charge – first-class health services to around 200,000 victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in Basey and in two other coastal towns in Samar. A second ICRC hospital in neighbouring Balangiga town helps ease the load.

The field hospital’s “whiteness” – all the tents are chalk white and emblazoned with the deep red insignia of the Red Cross – also stands in stark contrast to its surrounding: a sprawling heap of twisted metal, crumbling concrete, and hills upon hills of blackened garbage.

The typhoon destroyed 90 per cent of Basey and claimed about 600 of the town’s inhabitants when it struck on Nov 8.

Mr Kjell Engkrog, a Norwegian and an ICRC team leader, said the hospital had admitted about 3,500 patients since it first opened in late November.

At least one surgery is performed there daily, he said, and the outpatient clinic receives about 200 patients each day.

The first patients were treated for scars, wounds and infections they sustained while clearing their homes of debris.

Lately, the ICRC facility has been the go-to hospital for women needing Caesarean procedures, as the nearest local hospital can handle only normal deliveries.

Patients who suffered a stroke or requiring an appendectomy, as well as those with burns, injuries from traffic accidents, abdominal pain and flu have also been flocking to the hospital.

Two weeks after the hospital opened its doors, 19-year-old Arnel Arconis walked in with his intestine jutting out the side of his abdomen.

Five months earlier, his hernia rotated, leading to an acute abdomen. A hole had to be cut along the side of his torso and a stoma installed through it so he could discharge stool.

He could not return to his doctor because he did not have the money to have the stoma removed, and Typhoon Haiyan only made his condition worse. (His family lost their home when the typhoon struck.)

Finally, a surgeon at the ICRC hospital removed the stoma for him and reattached his intestines, “and now the guy is well and again leading a normal life”, said Mr Engkrog.

“We don’t refuse anyone coming here,” he said.

When The Straits Times visited the hospital in December, eight-year-old Recto Villanege was recovering from burns he sustained when a kettle of boiling water spilt onto the left half of his face, neck and arms.

The boy had been at an evacuation centre when the accident happened.

“We’re glad we have this hospital that we can run to,” said the boy’s father, Mr Rio Villanege. “We lost our home, and we don’t have any money left.”

While it serves as an important cog in the overall effort to rebuild areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, the ICRC’s hospital in Basey also provides a riddle that now requires an immediate answer, especially with relief workers from abroad already planning an exit.

Mr Engkrog said he and his fellow volunteers will stay “as long as necessary”, but not indefinitely. He said when they head back to Germany and Norway, they will leave behind the hospital and everything in it in Basey.

The problem, he said, is that no government doctor has stepped forward to help out at the hospital, as they would rather work their shifts at their provincial hospital where they get their salaries.

So, no one so far is in a position to receive and competently operate all the equipment and facilities the ICRC will be turning over, said Mr Engkrog.

Mr Atishay Abbhi, the ICRC’s communications delegate for Haiyan, told The Straits Times: “It’s the sustainability factor. You need locals to be trained in the equipment we’re using, who are ready to maintain the same standards we have set. Someone has to step forward.”

rdancel@sph.com.sg