The Israeli field hospital on the island of Cebu in the Philippines went online on Friday morning. Since then it has become the central medical facility in this part of the typhoon-torn region, serving a population of 250,000 and treating upwards of 300 patients per day, the manager of the IDF’s field hospital said Sunday.
Lt. Col. (res) Dr. Ofer Merin, a heart surgeon who otherwise serves as deputy director of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, said that Israel’s scout team, sent to the country last week, had decided to establish the field hospital in a remote area that lacked medical facilities. “We established our field hospital here, in Bogo City, alongside a hospital that usually has two-three physicians per shift,” Merin said.
The hospital serves a city of nearly 80,000 people and an island of 250,000, and Merin said he had not seen any other international medical teams in the region.
The IDF rescue and relief team arrived in the country on Thursday, one week after Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippine archipelago, killing at least 4,000 people and leaving over 600,000 homeless and millions of others without basic supplies.
The Israeli team consists of 125 people, including 25 doctors, 15 nurses, and dozens of medics, lab technicians and support staff.
Merin called it a multidisciplinary hospital, equipped with an operating room, an X-ray machine and incubators for pre-term babies.
The staff, who have treated over 710 people thus far, have been seeing three distinct groups of patients, he said. The bulk of them suffer from injuries sustained as a direct result of the typhoon. “They suffered from what we, in the western world, would call minor injuries,” Merin explained. “But these injuries, left untreated, can cause secondary infections.” Therefore, the cleaning of wounds and administration of simple antibiotics were having life-saving effects.
The second group included those who were suffering from diseases that had been under control before the typhoon struck. “The lack of running water, the lack of electricity and the lack of medical treatment pushed the chronic illnesses and the more-or-less stable diseases out of control,” he said.
And finally, there are those who have suffered from diseases that have gone untreated for years, manifesting in the sort of advanced-stage cancer, for instance, that is seldom seen in hospitals in Israel.
Over the past 24 hours, Merin revealed, the staff had successfully delivered three premature babies, bringing the total of births delivered in the field hospital to 12. Of the babies born Sunday, all were under three kilograms and one was born seven weeks early. “All three women arrived during the same hour,” Merin said. “If we weren’t here, there’d be one nurse or one physician in charge of all three women giving birth.” He added that there is frequently a correlation between a natural disaster and pre-term birth.
At 3 a.m. on Sunday, a man arrived at the hospital, bleeding profusely from a stab wound to the chest. He needed a chest drainage, which is a relatively simple treatment, but one that the local staff is ordinarily unequipped to perform. “We treated him immediately with a chest tube,” Merin said, and stabilized his condition. “Again, I am cautious, but I am not sure what would’ve happened if we hadn’t been around.”
The team of medical professionals and support staff managed to mobilize and begin working with exceptional speed. Merin attributed that to the nature of the team, which deploys as a military unit and is therefore bound by a firm protocol and backed by a large organization; to the fact that the IDF always sends a scout team to the stricken country, which enabled the medical crew to begin working within six to seven hours of arrival; and to the mindset of the medical staff and logistics officers, who serve in the IDF Home Front Command.
“I think it is also a question of the mentality we have. We all know that when there is a disaster — wherever it happens in the world — everyone is ready to drop everything and come and assist wherever we are needed,” he said, adding that the unit trains once a year for precisely such scenarios and has had extensive experience, stretching back to the early 1980s and most recently in Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011.
Offering an example of this sort of commitment, Lt. Libby Weiss, a spokesperson for the IDF, said that Master Sergeant Eli Attias, a logistics NCO currently serving in the field hospital, got married two days before the deployment, but had chosen nonetheless to join the team.
Merin described the work of treating patients in advanced states of disease, in very hot, very humid conditions, as a significant challenge that people are embracing “with all of their hearts.”
He estimated that the Israeli team would remain in place for a total of two weeks, treating upwards of 2,000 patients. “We will give medical assistance to the most acute cases,” he said, noting that word had spread fast, with dozens of patients lined up outside the hospital at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning. “Unfortunately, in this region, if we stay here for two months, or even for two years, we will have medical work every day.”