When the call came for volunteers to help the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, Joseph Catindig was among the first to go. A Hercules resident and registered nurse in the medical-surgical telemetry unit at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Vallejo, Catindig flew to the Philippines on Nov. 14 on his own time and with less than 24-hour notice as part of a five-person advance team of the Registered Nurse Response Network of National Nurses United.
For the next week, Catindig, who was born in Quezon City and spent the first 17 years of his life in the Philippines, worked virtually around the clock, organizing and providing medical care to the injured, displaced and sick.
Yet amid the horror he witnessed, Catindig found inspiration in the resilience, the faith, the friendliness and modesty of the people of his native land.
In one community his team visited, Estancia in Iloilo province, where the main livelihood is fishing, bodies had washed ashore, and people were afraid to fish. Moreover, oil was spilling from a barge damaged by the storm.
"The stench -- I don't know how people can live in such a toxic environment; the dead bodies mixed with the oil spill," Catindig said.
Yet, despite their horrific plight, the people were still smiling and welcomed the relief workers with open arms.
"We went there as a group, thinking that we would change people's lives, but it's the other way around," Catindig said. "You will be the one changed. You will not see things the same way."
The team had started out in Quezon City near Manila, far from the worst-hit areas of the Central Philippines such as Leyte Island and the city of Tacloban, a name by now familiar to many American television viewers. After two days in Quezon City, meeting with local relief organizations and politicians, the group flew to Iloilo, west of Leyte.
But with no flights to Tacloban and the seaport damaged, Catindig said they changed direction and focused on other hard-hit areas that were being neglected. They traveled in two pickup trucks to remote little towns.
"That's when we saw devastation," Catindig said. "Homes were destroyed. Their schools, their churches, their livelihoods, the animals that helped them with their livelihoods: they're gone. They were wiped out, pretty much."
He remembered one area where the corn, used for feed, and all the banana trees were destroyed, and light posts were scattered all over the roadway.
They conducted a day clinic in the town of Sara, where they treated about 200 people.
"We saw coughs, runny noses, diarrhea, pneumonia," Catindig remembered. "People were sleeping in makeshift tents, exposed to all the elements, the heat, the cold, the rain, mosquitoes. We gave them medication, but at the end of day, they're still exposed to the elements. It's a vicious cycle."
"They need help rebuilding their homes, their schools, their churches -- their lives, basically."
The team identified Roxas City as a suitable location to set up a long-term mobile¿ clinic, based on accessibility, safety and most importantly, the need for health care of the local population.
Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse who runs the response network effort of the California Nurses Association said the fourth team left Monday for the Philippines. Once they land, she said the nurses provide medical care and so much more.
"They're impacting individual families directly, families that are grieving because of loss of loved ones, children who are traumatized by complete loss of shelter, and now they're living in evacuee centers," she said. "Our nurses are working directly with the children: stress counseling, debriefing. Sometimes they are too traumatized to talk so
the nurses have them draw pictures."
Catindig said he came away with a reminder of the importance of faith in his native country, as a bulwark against despair.
"Filipinos ... will just pray, pray, pray. That's what gives them strength," Catindig said. "The churches, even without a roof -- they will go there and do their service. ... That's what's keeping them going."
He would like to go back, but with 3,000 volunteers, and teams numbering six nurses, his chances of being sent by the response network are slim.
"Maybe I'll go on my own, sometime."
To donate to the RNRN disaster relief fund, go to www.nationalnursesunited.Org/pages/rnrn-disaster-relief-fund