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US Navy Hospital Treats Poor in Philippines

The U.S. Navy Hospital ship Mercy is sending personnel and equipment to victims of the earthquake in Indonesia. The ship, which has a history of helping out in disasters, is now in the Philippines at the start of a Southeast Asian tour. In southern Mindanao island hundreds of people turned out at a clinic on land sponsored by the Mercy, while major surgery was conducted on board the ship.

Recodo , general check ups, medication and dental care. Organizers planned for 600 hundred patients but at least 15 hundred showed up.

One of them is 58-year-old Zoraya Abdullah who has come in for an eye check up, something she has not had in 10 years. Her joints also hurt and she suspects arthritis.

Zoraya says poor Filipinos do not have the money for proper medical care or medicine, and often must choose between getting treatment and eating.

"If we have no money we cannot go [to a] doctor. Just consultation [cost] 250 pesos [about $5] Medicine, how we can buy? Maybe [it costs] 2,000-3,000 [pesos, or $40 to $60] like that. [We have] money for food, for eating only. We pray to God, we are Muslim," she said.

Patients are being treated by dozens of medical staff from the Mercy hospital ship. Staff members from local hospitals are taking part as well.

Getting enough medication is a problem for poor. Doctor Rodel Agvoles, the Zamboanaga city health officer, says the city health care system can only afford limited doses.

"Whenever they think foreigners, not only Americans, come for a medical mission they will expect more complete medications. They will expect a complete dose [of] antibiotics, a complete dose of vitamins, because when we do a medical mission we usually only give starter doses," he said.

The Recodo Baranggay, or district, has a population of 10,000 to 14,000 people. Their health care is provided by one public health doctor who makes rounds once per week.

Dental care is also lacking. Hundreds of people came for the free dental treatment provided by the Mercy. The head of the Dental Division of the Mercy mission, Navy Commander Jan Delorey-Lytle, says many teeth needed pulling.

"Rampant decay, loose teeth, broken down teeth, unserviceable teeth. This is [was]mainly all extractions today. No fillings, everyone was extractions. We probably did, I am going to take a guess, 500 people, maybe 1500 teeth," she said.

The Mercy ship mission also provides surgery. Many operations are conducted at a local hospital by doctors from the Mercy. More complicated surgery, such as for stomach, eye, and thyroid illnesses, or for facial deformities (cleft lip and cleft Pallet), are performed in operating rooms on the ship.

The ship is huge. It is a converted oil tanker the length of three football fields with a capacity for a thousand hospital beds.

It was originally designed to treat major casualties during U.S. military operations. But on its current humanitarian mission it is operating on a smaller scale with only 40 beds for patients.

Fifty-two-year-old Sitti Sabdani spent two days on the ship for cataract surgery on her eye. She wears an eye patch as part of her recovery.

"Thank God for answering my prayers to send someone to treat my eyes," said Sabdani.

The become serious because they are neglected for many years.

"The patients defer this care because of family or financial reasons. These cases then become more complex over time, whereas if they had been taken care of early on it would have been less of a complicated matter," he explained. "So one thing that the Mercy has been able to do is to allow these people that you see today to have hope to come and have these surgical cases taken care of."

For some people on Mindanao it may be the first and the last time they see a doctor. One Filipino woman who received medicine for her allergies summed up her gratitude in this way.

"Americans are friendship and friendly. Friendship and friendly," she noted.

The Mercy is spending several weeks in the southern Philippines. It is a massive undertaking. At least a dozen civic organizations are also taking part, including doctors from Canada and India.

The Philippines is the first stop of a five-month Asia tour by the Mercy that is also to include Indonesia, East Timor, and Bangladesh.