Hamilton doctor off to Philippines to help victims of typhoon Haiyan

Dr. Brianna Wilson set to work in a Tacloban parking lot turned into a medical clinic, amid 'unbelievable damage'

Typhoon Haiyan slammed the Philippines in early November, killing over 5,000 people

Dr. Brianna Wilson at work. The Hamilton doctor is set to travel to Tacloban, one of the most devastated cities in the Philippines, to deliver medical help to people affected by Typhoon Haiyan. (Submitted by Brianna Wilson)

Hamilton doctor Brianna Wilson is heading to the Philippines this week to help out with typhoon relief efforts there. 

Typhoon Haiyan slammed the Philippines in early November, killing over 5,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Major cities like Tacloban and Cebu were devastated by the storm, leaving many dependent on foreign aid being brought to the city.

CBC Hamilton spoke with Wilson, who is currently in Haiti working with the Canada-based international aid organization Samaritan's Purse, by email as she was getting prepared for her trip. Below is our question-and-answer, which has been condensed for brevity.

CBC Hamilton: How does a Hamilton doctor wind up in Haiti, and now on the way to the Philippines?

Brianna Wilson: I have always been interested in international health. In fact, after I finished my undergrad at McMaster I took a CIDA internship in Kenya and said no to medical school because I was unsure if I wanted to be a doctor or work in international public health. After that year I decided that I wanted to do both.

During medical school I did a rotation in Uganda, and then took a tropical medicine course in Uganda and Tanzania after finishing my residency program.

It was while I was in Tanzania that cholera broke out in Haiti. Samaritan's Purse opened up several cholera treatment centres and needed volunteers to help out because of the volume of patients they were seeing. This is what brought me to Haiti the first time in June 2011. After that I came back two more times as a volunteer and then was approached to take on a full-time position in Haiti as Medical Director for Samaritan's Purse.

From what they tell me there is just unbelievable damage as far as they can see in any direction.- Dr. Brianna Wilson

CBC: And what will you be doing in the Philippines?

BW: I will be joining an 80 member multinational Disaster Assistance Response Team [Editor's note: the Samaritan's Purse response team is not connected to the Canadian Forces DART team, which recently concluded its mission in the Philippines] to provide medical relief to those affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Of the 80 member team, approximately 12 people are medical, and the others are doing food distribution, shelter construction and providing clean water. 

I will be working in a field hospital in the parking lot of a hospital in Tacloban that was badly damaged by the storm, as well as going out to remote communities as part of a mobile medical clinic.

CBC: What personally motivates you to work on relief projects like this?

BW: I have always had an interest in working with the under-served. Even in Hamilton, I chose to work for the Shelter Health Network and for Refuge Clinic, both serving populations that most doctors shy away from working with.

Certainly working overseas, I know that I'm working with patients that might not get medical care otherwise, whereas for the most part, in Canada, if I wasn't there, there would be someone else to treat the patient. It's also very rewarding to see the difference the medical care can make in someone's life.

I chose to work with Samaritan's Purse because they are a Christian organization and they share my belief that physical healing is not all that a person needs. Working for Samaritan's Purse allows me to address spiritual needs of patients as well.

CBC: What do you expect to see when you arrive?

BW: I have some friends who are working in Tacloban now, so I've seen pictures and heard stories from the clinics, hospital and community. From what they tell me there is just unbelievable damage as far as they can see in any direction. 

But what they've also been impressed with is the resilience and hope of the Filipino people. Apparently they [the Filipino people] have been working very hard in the clean up and restoration efforts. One doctor told me that she was really humbled when a patient presented her with one of his food aid items to show her his gratitude.

CBC: What will be the biggest challenges facing you and your team?

BW: I will know more when I get there, but probably lack of accessible resources will be an issue. When a patient is very sick and needs admission to a hospital or higher level of care, will that care be available? I imagine we will also be seeing a lot of water-borne diseases because of a lack of access to clean water as well.  

CBC: What can Hamiltonians do to help to help out?

BW: Not long after a disaster like this, people forget about what happened despite the years of work and difficulties ahead for the country affected (or at least it's not talked about as much.) It would be great to see people keeping up to date with recovery efforts, and continuing to support organizations that are doing good work there.