Registered nurses answer the call for relief teams in typhoon area

The only time that Joselito Tirona can reach his wife in the Philippines is about 3 a.m. Sacramento time – early in the evening in Roxas City, where Lyn Tirona, a 37-year-old registered nurse who works at Kaiser Permanente’s Roseville Medical Center, is currently deployed as part of a volunteer medical mission helping victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

“They have no electricity, and they’re using a chapel as the clinic,” said Joselito Tirona, who lives with his wife and two small children in Roseville. “They wake up very early in the morning and stay up late at night treating people. My wife is trying to stay in touch with us on the Internet, but the Internet is limited because they can’t always use the generator.

“She said she wears a headlamp when she treats people there in the clinic.”

Following the devastating Nov. 8 typhoon, more than 3,000 registered nurses from across the country – including a number of Filipino nurses from Sacramento and other parts of California – have signed on to an ongoing relief mission organized by National Nurses United’s Registered Nurse Response Network (RNRN).

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan, which tore through the central Philippines, has risen past 5,500, with thousands more people still missing. Millions of survivors were displaced from their homes, living either in evacuation centers or on the streets in makeshift shelters. But in the weeks since, media attention has waned, even while the human drama continues.

For many of the RNRN volunteers, the mission is personal: Almost 20 percent of California’s registered nurses are Filipino, including more than 14 percent of those working in the Sacramento region, according to California HealthCare Foundation statistics. Drawn by the region’s burgeoning health care industry, Filipinos have become Sacramento’s largest Asian ethnic group, growing by 70 percent from 2000 to 2010, U.S. Census figures show.

“Here in California, our Filipino nurses have very strong ties to the Philippines and their families there,” said Bonnie Castillo, RNRN’s director and governmental relations director for the California Nurses Association.

“And they are more than willing to go back to help.”

RNRN’s third team of seven nurses left Saturday for a 10-day rotation in Roxas City, a seaside town on the island of Panay, which took a direct hit from the powerful storm.

Jane Sandoval, an emergency room nurse at the California Pacific Medical Center St. Luke’s hospital campus in San Francisco, was assigned to the team. Her parents, now deceased, immigrated in 1960 from Samar, one of the islands slammed by the typhoon.

“I’ve always wanted to do this work,” said Sandoval, 52. “I don’t have my parents any more. I feel I’m doing this for them. This is my homage to them.”

Half a world away, what awaits is a country left struggling to put basic services back into place for a large part of its population. People in the central Philippines – the Visaya islands – still need water and food. But they also need treatment for respiratory ailments caused by mold and the smoke from burning rubble. They need to find a way to replace medications lost in chaos and destruction of the storm, and more than anything else, they need care for the physical and emotional wounds they suffered as a result of Haiyan.

“We’re seeing a lot of children and doing a lot of stress counseling,” said Castillo. “The survivors have been so traumatized. I saw the first pictures taken by our clinic team, and I lost it. With this kind of devastation and need, I was overwhelmed. Health needs translate across language and cultural barriers.”

In Roxas City, the plan is for the nurses to set up pop-up clinics in one neighborhood, called barangay, after another as the weeks unfold, trying to go into more distant barangays to reach as many victims as possible for as many months as it takes to help them.

Joseph Catading, 46, a registered nurse at Kaiser’s Vallejo medical center, returned on Nov. 22 from nine days in the Philippines as part of RNRN’s advance team. He immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s.

“We made our way into the remote areas, places we don’t see in the news but that are equally devastated as Tacloban,” he said. “In Roxas City, their homes were destroyed. The churches were gone. The health clinics were gone or in disarray. There are a lot of sick people.

“They’re living in shelters exposed to the elements. It’s heartbreaking. They need help rebuilding their homes. They need help rebuilding their lives.”

He wants to go back, he said, because there’s more work to do.

Meanwhile, Patrick Bagnol awaits his turn to go: The 55-year-old Kaiser Roseville intensive-care unit nurse has been cleared to be part of the RNRN effort in the Philippines, and he’s waiting to be assigned to a team. It will be his first disaster relief effort.

“I have to go,” he said. “I’m from the same region, not the same province. It’s only an hour away by boat.

“I just can’t keep myself from doing something to help. With my experience and expertise, I think I can do more over there. This is close to home for me. We’re here to help our country. I feel I need to do something.”

Lyn Tirona – currently part of RNRN’s second team volunteering in the Philippines until Dec. 8 – grew up in a small town not far from hard-hit Tacloban. Days passed before she learned that her mother and brothers had survived the typhoon.

“Thank God, they are safe except for the loss of their homes and the devastation of the very place where I grew up and honed my nursing profession,” she said by email. “Being here for a couple of days has made me appreciate everything I have. Mingling and working with the locals has been humbling.”

For now, she’s staying in a small hotel in Roxas City, her husband said. Other team members are staying with relatives nearby.

On the day their clinic opened in the chapel, more than 300 people came, asking for help.

“It’s time for her to give to the Filipino people,” said her husband, Joselito, 41. “It’s time to show our concern for others. I know she needs to do this. She wants to see her family, too, but she’s on a mission to help people.”