Typhoon Haiyan: Onboard a refugee flight for the displaced victims of Tacloban

Medic's Diary

I have just witnessed more than 100 people cry simultaneously. Tears of joy, I would guess, mixed with those of relief. The location was the interior of a Hercules aircraft. The reason? I have joined a refugee flight for the displaced victims of Tacloban as they head towards Manila and beyond.

For so many the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda in the local tongue, has meant that any form of reconstruction is impossible. Anyway, with so many dead and injured, how can they trust Tacloban again? So for some it is time to get out, stay out and build up a life outside. You can almost understand their view. It is a sorry sight, lines of refugees clutching what few items that remain in their lives, waiting at the damaged Tacloban Airport. All ages are there, from the very old to the very young and all those in between.

There are plenty of incomplete families. Husbands without wives, brothers without sisters. fathers without daughters or sons. The lines give away so much about a destroyed society although I am not surprised when I recall the total devastation on Tacloban's streets. Inside the belly of the aircraft, the first to load were the injured and elderly. Then the rest walked unsteadily up the tailgate ramp. I stopped counting at 100 and found myself a small corner up near the front and sat uncomfortably on the edge of a metal strut. I was lucky to find somewhere to sit. For the majority, they stood for the whole journey, strap hanging without the strap. There were plenty there who had never been in an aircraft before. Most looked totally confused. Then, as the tailgate closed, as the workhorse of the skies allowed her engines to pick up speed and as she began to shake, some children cried out in terror. However, mostly the atmosphere was one of an escaping people awaiting their fate. I saw at least two couples with their fingers crossed, looking into each other's eyes.

As we landed, with a thump that made many stumble, there was clapping and crying and hugging and laughing. At least as much laughing as bereavement and The Beast can allow. For many of the passengers this was the first moment they could relax and realise that they had escaped the horrors of Typhoon Haiyan. I even saw a few kiss the runway once we were allowed to disembark.

Although all ages were represented on that flight it seemed that so many were young men and women. That seems to be the way of things in disaster. I have seen it the world over. Those between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 35 years have an inbuilt survival instinct that allows them to take risks and to endure. Many of the elderly are simply too frail to put up a fight while the very young are too inexperienced. Darwin's survival of the fittest was never more true than during a disaster.

The ability to survive when a catastrophe is ongoing was so often told at the field hospital, when the injured would be admitted for surgery. Most would freely describe their experience, almost as a form of therapy, although there were some who preferred to lock their horrors away. The young girl whose side was sliced wide by a flying corrugated iron sheet at the very start of the typhoon. She lay in the open, bleeding, and praying that no more of the many tons of flying debris would strike her as they flew lethally by. One did hit her face towards the end of the storm, 16 hours later, another laceration for us to clean and eventually close. She lost her entire family to The Beast. Or, the father who lost two of his three children, plus his wife. Yet his wife did not die instantly. She perished protecting a child from the storm. A collapsing wall crushed her skull just as the winds were beginning to subside. Such stories. Were these just bad luck, or were they Nature's will? How can we ever know?

But for me, my flight to Manila with so many unfortunates has also brought with it some sadness, tinged with an element of guilt. I am at the end of my tour in the disaster zone and will be heading for home soon. I hate that typhoon and all it created, yet somehow I will also miss the opportunity it has given to come closer to fellow man. Disaster surgery is not all about technical expertise, it is also about kindness, where your best instrument is a warm handshake and a smile, or the time to listen to a story. People need to talk after an experience like Haiyan, Yolanda, The Beast, call it what you like. They need to unburden their losses, which in so many cases have been total. Just imagine, from the comfort of your typhoon-free home, what it would be like if tomorrow morning, when you awoke, you had no house, no job, no family, everything you have built up and saved over so many years was suddenly and instantly gone. It does not bear thinking about. It makes our worries in less catastrophic parts of the world seem so tiny.

And guilt? Why do I feel guilt? Because I am leaving behind good friends in the frontline of disaster. I am returning to my comforts while they must still withstand the rigours - and they are real rigours - of the disaster zone. My team colleagues and the quite excellent staff from the Australian field hospital who are, in my view, second to none. Each is the type of person with whom, in personal speak, you would be happy to have a beer. But most of all, I will miss the patients and feel enormously guilty for leaving them behind. Patients, after all, are why doctors were invented.

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