November 17, 2018

Bringing help to Philippines

When an 18-month-old named Edgar was brought to Dr. Ofer Merin and the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) field hospital in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, the child was unconscious and suffering from meningitis, a severe bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

It was a hospital that — prior to the Israelis’ arrival — didn’t have an X-ray machine or a blood bank. Over a three-day-period, though, the boy was revived and was eventually transferred to a hospital in a different city, where he recovered fully.

And Edgar wasn’t alone.

Merin arrived in the middle of the night on Nov. 14 at the hospital in the Filipino city of Bogo, a city short on electricity, running water and adequate medical services. When his team started admitting patients, hundreds of people were already waiting in line. 

Soon, the team was treating 300 patients per day, with people waiting up to eight hours to be seen by one of the Israeli or Filipino doctors. By the time the Israelis left 12 days later, they had treated nearly 3,000 patients, according to Merin.

“There were quite a bit of injuries — in extreme cases, from roofs falling on the legs of people, walls that were collapsing. These are not the same walls you would see in houses in L.A.” Merin said, speaking in a phone interview from his home in Jerusalem. “These are houses that are made of wood [and other materials]. People were injured from nails that were falling on them, and so on.”

As head of the IDF field hospital, Merin has helped save lives all over the world in countries reeling from the devastating effects of mass casualty incidents, such as wars, earthquakes and storms. Over the years, Merin has built a reputation as the go-to man when Israel is looking to deploy medical teams to disaster-stricken countries in need. 

He was dispatched in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and he went to Japan in 2011 to aid with the relief effort following the devastating earthquake and tsunami there. This year, he’s even gone to the tension-filled Israel-Syria border, treating victims of Syria’s civil war. Merin also serves as deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where he is a cardiac surgeon. 

As Israel’s globetrotting emergency medicine doctor on call, he was sent to the Philippines in November following the unprecedentedly strong tropical storm that hit the Southeast Asian island country on Nov. 8, taking thousands of lives. Merin arrived with 150 people making up two units — medical and search and rescue — who came with 70 tons of medical supplies in tow. 

Patients represented a range of injuries and medical conditions, often arriving with respiratory disease, pneumonia and high fever. No patient was turned away due to having too severe an injury, but patients with less-critical injuries were asked to wait. Patients were treated in the operating room in the local Filipino hospital, where the Israelis provided generators to power the medical equipment. They also provided ventilators; previously, patients’ family members were ventilating them.

Merin, 53, praised his team. 

“The people who go on these missions — the medics, the people from home front command, the cooks and the physicians — I can honestly say these are very special people,” he said.  “Some of them are doing actual duty in the army, a lot of them come from reserve forces, [and] everyone drops everything — their jobs, their families and other obligations — and go to a place which is far way and which, I must say … is not fun work. It’s not like you’re going to search a new region in the world. This is hard work.”

Working in Bogo, a city of approximately 75,000 people in the northern part of the island of Cebu, Merin said it was essential that the Israelis’ efforts not undermine the trust that the Filipinos of that community had in their local hospital. They did not want to set up a field hospital that would make the locals choose between Israeli medical assistance and Filipino assistance. So instead of creating a separate venue, they made a space that was an extension of the existing hospital, setting up 10 large tents outside and working alongside Filipino doctors in treating patients. 

“This was an important message: not working alone, but working hand-in-hand with the Filipinos,” Merin said.

When the Israeli team prepared to leave, a team of European medical professionals arrived to replace them. The Israelis left behind their supplies on the condition that they be used for the relief effort.

Shortly before their departure, several of the Israeli physicians, including Merin, made a long drive to the hospital where Edgar had been transferred. The boy’s parents were stunned, Merin said. 

“Just to see the eyes of the Filipino family, the mother and the father of the kid in this hospital, they were shocked to see the Israeli physicians walking into this hospital in this evening to check on their kid, who we treated a few days earlier,” he said. “For me, it’s something very symbolic.”