Starweek Magazine

'Love is free': Helping others with no questions asked

- Ryan Songalia -

MANILA, Philippines - On his first wedding anniversary, Dr. Josef Tuazon left his pregnant wife behind and boarded a plane out of the country.

Normally, this would be a problem that no marriage counselor can repair, but Tuazon was hardly running away from his responsibilities. Instead, he was on his way to Haiti, a third world nation still in tatters after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the country last Jan.12.

Tuazon, a Filipino-born Jersey City, New Jersey resident, was one of six members of Burn Advocates Network sent to Haiti in August to give advanced clinical instruction to the first class of physical therapists being trained at the only physical and occupational therapy clinic in northern Haiti.

Located in the coastal city of Cap-Haïtien, the Justinien University Hospital Center for Physical and Occupational Therapy is the sole hope for hundreds of the nearly 1,000 burn victims of the earthquake, as well as scores of amputees and trauma survivors.

Unlike traditional injuries, burn wounds tend to get progressively debilitating. A major complication of burns is contracture, which occurs when scarring causes the skin to tighten and damages nerves and underlying muscles. Without aggressive physical therapy and contracture release surgery, burn victims become more and more crippled.

In addition to burns, Tuazon also treated spinal cord, crush and fracture injuries, all of which he sees on a daily basis in his Journal Square physical therapy clinic, A Better Life.

The door to Haiti was opened at a chance meeting with Burn Advocates Network founder Samuel Davis at a benefit dinner. Davis, a personal injury attorney from Teaneck, New Jersey, described the extremely dire conditions in the Caribbean nation which, like the Philippines, is predominantly Roman Catholic. Tuazon was immediately drawn to the cause.

“I was telling Joe Tuazon about their plight and he responded, ‘Boy, I want to help those people,’” said Davis, who named Tuazon chief of physical therapy for the Haiti mission.

“It was a no-brainer for me to get involved,” said Tuazon. “This tragedy could have happened anywhere – New Jersey, New York, Manila or Cebu. If this happened to our brothers and sisters back home, we would hope that people in better positions would contribute to the relief efforts.”

The crew boarded a rickety, 15-seat propeller plane from Port au Prince to northern Haiti. Upon touching down on the dangerously short runway, the team encountered far more forbidding circumstances.

The hospital had no windows – just openings in the wall where glass would normally be. The 15 sickest patients were crowded into a ward in beds only a few feet apart, separated by mosquito netting.

Without air conditioning or even ceiling fans, the temperatures ranged in the high 90s during much of the day. Despite having extensive medical training, few Haitian nurses had any training in physical therapy. Tuazon sought to fill that void.

“Joe Tuazon is a very good teacher,” said Davis. “Even though he doesn’t speak Creole or French, with the help of a translator, he was able to reach the patients and nursing staff effectively. He is so upbeat and compassionate that his manner cuts across the language barrier.

“Joe is unbelievably resourceful. He taught the nurses how to craft a splint from a piece of broken furniture and devise at-home therapy plans for patients who could not get transportation to the clinic.”

While in Haiti, members of the Burn Advocates mission also took time to visit an orphanage to uplift the children – many of whose parents were among the estimated 250,000 believed to have died in the tragedy. Davis’ law partner, Garry Salomon, provided dinner consisting of chicken and green vegetables for the 80-plus children. The children were incredulous. “One of the girls from the orphanage asked, ‘What is the holiday? Why are we having meat today,’” remembers Tuazon.

The philanthropic-minded visitors didn’t limit their donations to knowledge and dinner; Burn Advocates and  Medical Angels with the logistic support of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line shipped 50 tons of medical supplies, food and clothing from the port of Bayonne to the docks at Labadee, delivering life saving supplies “from dock to doctor“ in just six days. Shipping through the Haitian capital of Port au Prince can take months to offload and clear customs.

Burn Advocates Network is planning their fourth and final trip of the year in December, this time with a Filipina surgical technician in tow. Despite the absence of monetary compensation, the organization continues to receive applications from qualified volunteers seeking to reach out and assist people in a country that, while so close to America, seems like a world away.

“Love is free,” Tuazon said. “Some people are able to contribute money, some medical supplies, and some their expertise and their time.  No one part is more important than the other. Every piece of the puzzle is important. Together we can make a difference.”

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/ryansongalia.

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