RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Thousands of miles away in remote Philippine villages, families lack access to medication and basic health care. The medical needs of the people in the Philippines are tremendous, especially in the rural areas, where many suffer from treatable ailments.
Every January for the past five years, Air Force Master Sgt. Cesar Jurilla of the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing travels to these remote locations with his wife, Cora, as part of a team of doctors, nurses and nonmedical assistants who volunteer with the Filipino ministry of California’s San Bernardino Roman Catholic diocese in cooperation with Bishop Gerald Barnes.
“A goal of the medical mission trip is to discover and rediscover Filipino roots through indigenous people in the Philippines -- to know their health situation and to respond to their medical needs,” Jurilla said.
Most of the patients are children, mothers and senior citizens, because the adult men are working in the rice fields, he said. However, he added, the volunteers have treated 12-year-olds in the past with back pains from working in the rice fields before going to school.
Hundreds of Patients Each Day
The team sets up in one location for a couple of days then moves to another location. About 500 patients are treated each day for anything from infections, headaches, stomachaches and even malnutrition. At one location, people from four or five villages will seek treatment, with some walking very far distances, Jurilla said.
A typical day begins with Jurilla loading medicines into a vehicle and driving to the location to set up the different stations so everything is ready when the doctors, nurses and pharmacy staff arrive.
“In the mornings, there is a lot of preparation,” he said. “Nonmedical people like me are in charge of logistics and setting up. I help calm the patients and assure them that everyone will be seen. I tell them not to rush and not to push.
“After they’re seen by the doctor and get their prescriptions, they crowd the pharmacy because they’re afraid they won’t get their medicine,” he continued. “If we run out of medicine for patients, we will donate our personal stuff, like aspirin, because it’s difficult to refuse villagers who walk two to three hours to get to us, but they arrive late, so most of the medicine is gone.”
Accounting for Medications
An inventory of medication is conducted at the end of every day to help determine what will be needed for the next mission.
“After the pharmacy collects the prescriptions we account for what medicine we passed out,” Jurilla said. “At the end of our hot wash, we know what was exactly in demand. For example, if high blood pressure meds are not in demand, we can lower the amount for next time. If there was a medicine in short supply, we can buy more the next time. There are always lessons learned.”
Jurilla said he has to expect the unexpected sometimes, and that he works with local security personnel to ensure the process runs smoothly and safely. On their first trip, while the volunteers went out to take a group photo, he added, someone stole their antibiotics.
“I have to be aware for safety and security as well,” he said. “I keep accountability of our doctors, nurses and nonmedical people. At the same time, I work with the local people, local security and local volunteers because they speak the dialect. I let them know what is needed.”
Help From Local Priests
Through the assistance of contacts in the Philippines, the team decides where they will set up before making the journey overseas. Local priests survey the locations most in need and assign numbers for the patients to show up at a designated time.
“We don’t want to deal with the red tape and waste time,” Jurilla explained. “It is not for us to, say, choose who can or can’t be seen.”
All money for the medical expenses comes from donations and fundraisers, Jurilla said, while the expenses for the team members are all out of pocket.
“We pay our own way to the Philippines,” he added. “Cora and I spend about $2,100 each, including airfare, lodging and meals.”
The Jurillas also buy additional items to pass out to the patients, such as vitamins, toothpaste, toothbrushes and flip flops for people who don’t have shoes. “One time we saw some kids going to school carrying their flip flops,” Jurilla said. “They didn’t want them to get dirty or broken in the mud, so they would carry them and then wash their feet and put on their new sandals once they arrived at school.”
Vitamins for Villagers
The Jurillas provide a 30-day supply of vitamins for villagers, due to the lack of vitamins in their diets. Some are malnourished, he said.
“The bad thing is the kids’ vitamins come in Gummy Bears, and sometimes they take them all in one day, thinking the vitamins are candy,” he added. “Some of the kids came back the next day asking us for more vitamins.”
The volunteers often stay with local host families, because lodging facilities are scarce in the remote areas, Jurilla said. Some of the places they visit have been severely damaged from typhoons or earthquakes over the years, destroying some crops.
“We brought canned goods to our host families,” he said. “We carry our own stuff, so I brought canned Vienna sausages, which is lighter. They were so happy -- it was like Christmas for them. This family was so nice they shared it with other relatives. They appreciate the little things in life. You wouldn’t think it was much, but to them it is.”
The volunteers often share their snacks, and on one trip, Jurilla shared beef jerky. “One of the kids saved it to share with his family to have meat with their dinner,” he said.
Jurilla was born in the Philippines. His father moved the family to the United States to have a better life.
“Every time we go back, we see how fortunate we are,” he said. “That’s why rediscovering our roots and giving back to the community is important -- we feel grateful. Some of the people are afraid to approach us, but I explain to them that I was born there and grew up there. I tell them anything is possible -- ‘My dad grew up here on a farm.’
“It feels good giving back,” he continued. “People approach me and say, ‘Thank you for being here for us. Now, instead of buying medicine, we can buy food.’ It feels good.”