Maui doctor will help where nature, not man, the culprit

PUKALANI – Dr. Zacarias Asuncion of Pukalani will board a plane today to help fight the deadliest natural disaster to hit the Philippines.

Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the country Nov. 8, has claimed more than 6,000 lives, with nearly 1,800 people missing.

“They said the devastation is terrible,” said Asuncion, who has been in contact with doctors at the University of the Philippines in Manila.

Asuncion has traveled every year to the Philippines, spending two weeks to help provide medical care.

The 74-year-old retired cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon had just returned home from a trip to South America before the supertyphoon hit the central region of his home country.

“I’ve been following the news ever since,” he said last week.

For the next two months, the surgeon will treat those hit hardest in the Leyte province of Eastern Visayas as part of the group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

“This will be my seventh mission with MSF and first assignment to a natural disaster,” he said. “My last six were in areas of armed conflict, so at least I won’t be dodging bullets.”

Asuncion, who worked as a surgeon at the Detroit Medical Center before moving to Maui in 2007, has spent the past five years with the humanitarian organization that serves in areas of armed conflict, epidemics and natural disasters. He recalled one of his first missions with the organization, in Nigeria.

“At nine o’ clock, a runner comes up (to my room) and woke me up and said I’m needed in the emergency room,” he said. “Five people had been shot, three in the head and one of them had one eyeball coming out. The other two (were) shot in the chest and one in the belly.

“That was my first day.”

Seated in his office, Asuncion cycled through photos on his computer depicting injuries from bomb explosions, gunshots and machete wounds. He said during a two-month tour in South Sudan about two years ago, he was the only surgeon for about 475,000 refugees.

“In those cases we match the injuries with our resources and manpower, especially when we only have one operating room,” he said. “We treat the ones most likely to survive and ask, ‘Do we have the resources?’ If not, then we cannot concentrate on them.”

Asuncion has traveled to a different country every year; his travels have included missions to Liberia, Sri Lanka and Jordan.

“We work 16 to 18 hours, wake up at 6 a.m. and come back at 10 p.m.,” he said. “Sometimes we just finish eating and we’re called back and have to drive 15 miles for a (person with) a gunshot wound to the heart or chest.”

Asuncion said that on his trips to countries involved in armed conflicts, you cannot “get in the car and zoom out.”

“Over there we’ll be going to the project coordinator who needs to plan the routes in case of armed militia,” he said of such missions. “We have to change the routes so we’re not predictable.”

Asuncion said that while in the Philippines, he will probably treat infected wounds and other complicated trauma injuries that resulted from the typhoon. He also may help with surgical procedures dealing with appendicitis, gallstones or Caesarean sections.

Last week, Asuncion had much of his gear spilled across a guest bed in his office, including medical textbooks, operating gloves and a head flashlight. On his trips with MSF, he typically brings three bags: a backpack and a suitcase that each weigh more than 30 pounds and a larger bag that he checks in on his flight.

Asuncion also brings what he calls “essential” items, such as a pocket-sized water purification device and a solar-powered charger for his smartphone.

“I’m in the process of buying a hand-held ultrasound machine about the size of an iPhone, but it’s quite expensive,” he said.

Asuncion’s wife, Janine, helped her husband pack for his trip and said it was difficult to not obsess over his well-being.

“If there’s a long period of time that I don’t hear from him, I start making up all these scenarios in my mind,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I’ll get a text and he’s fine, but it’s very nerve-racking and very hard.

“But that’s his happiness; that’s what he’s been trained to do.”

Janine Asuncion did find comfort, though, in knowing that her husband was traveling to the Philippines rather than another country in armed conflict, such as Afghanistan.

“That’s easier for me, because that’s his territory,” she said of the Philippines.

Asuncion realizes that his work with MSF is dangerous and recalled that a 28-year-old surgeon who took his place in northern Syria was killed.

“You just don’t know, you cannot predict,” he said. “So that’s why with (other doctors who have) young families, I say let us old guys go, because me, I’m fine. All my children have grown and are independent, so life has passed through.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at