Doctor: Incidences of infection heartbreaking

In the months since Dr. Zacarias Asuncion flew to the Philippines to help treat victims of Typhoon Haiyan late last year, the physician has endured countless “heartbreaking” stories of children afflicted with severe infections and death.

The retired Pukalani cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon made the trip Dec. 16 as part of the group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization that serves in areas of armed conflict, epidemics and natural disasters.

Since his arrival, Asuncion, 74, has been stationed at the Bethany Hospital in Tacloban City – one of the areas hardest hit by the typhoon.

“When the wave hit (the hospital), the flood was 10 feet high,” he said in an email after speaking with local doctors and nurses about the Nov. 8 incident.

The hospital, which is only a quarter of a mile from the ocean, immediately evacuated patients, including mothers who had given birth that morning.

The patients “walked through the corridors on the second floor, through the operating rooms, climbed over a sink, through a window and down a ladder, onto the roofs of a covered walkway,” Asuncion said of the evacuation impaired by strong floods and winds. They “climbed to a higher roof, and finally into the third floor of the main building, with their newborn babies.”

The typhoon tore the roof off the hospital and the doctors group is rebuilding it in exchange for more beds for indigent patients, Asuncion said.

While parts of the hospital are planned to be rebuilt, Asuncion has been tending to children suffering from asthma, gastrointestinal problems and pneumonia. His surgical load consists of infected wounds, primarily in the feet and legs, due to people swimming and roaming the streets barefoot and stepping on nails.

“Without medical care they developed severe infections, which require a lot of repeated surgical removal of infected tissues, to amputation,” he said.

Last month, Asuncion treated a 15-year-old boy with “full-blown tetanus” after he was injured by floating debris while trying to save his grandfather in their flooded home. The surgeon, originally from the Philippines, also said he treated an 8-year-old boy who suffered a neck injury while looking for metal rods to sell.

Although many of his patients are suffering from injuries due to scavenging and other activities, Asuncion recalled a family of seven that was severely burned in a fire while staying in tents provided by rescue workers two weeks ago.

Asuncion said the family’s children were initially taken to the government-run Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center because it has intensive care units and ventilators, but it could not afford to buy medicine, gloves and anesthetics for surgery.

The children were later transferred to Bethany Hospital, and Asuncion treated a 3-year-old girl “almost totally barbecued,” an 8-month-old boy with burns covering 45 percent of his body, a 19-year-old girl (18 percent) and a 15-year-old boy (15 percent).

“The father appeared in the tents looking for his children, and he walked . . . to Bethany with almost no clothes, and he had not eaten at all,” Asuncion said of the man who walked nearly 2 miles after learning his children had been transferred to the hospital.

The 8-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter both died due to complications from their injuries, he said.

As of Jan. 29, 6,201 people are reported dead, with another 28,626 injured and 1,785 missing, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. The country has also endured $879 million (in U.S. dollars) in agriculture and infrastructure damage.

Despite the death and destruction, Asuncion said Tacloban City, “as a whole, is rising up rather fast, thanks to the profusion of help from various (nongovernmental organizations).”

Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has five operational centers in the city, brought its own digital X-ray machines, generators, surgical equipment and medicine to hospitals, and it will most likely leave them after the organization has left, Asuncion said. The group initially deployed 100 volunteers to aid in the disaster and has now dwindled it down to less than 20.

“Tacloban is becoming self-capable rapidly due to an educated and respectful workforce and willingness to work hard,” he said.

Asuncion said he plans to return home on Feb. 28.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at