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Philippines: Bringing Healthcare To The Mountain

Sr. Eva Maamo and her team of doctors at the Foundation of Our Lady of Peace Mission Inc. (FOLPMI) go to the mountains to serve indigenous communities. “All we need is to inspire and encourage them to discover their talents and skills to be able to survive on their own”.

A mission trip to Surallah in South Cotabato, in the highlands of southwestern Mindanao, back in 1974 was supposedly an ordinary assignment for Sr. Eva Fidela Maamo and other sisters of St. Paul of Chartres (SPC). They were sent to reach out to the indigenous people living on the mountains around Lake Sebu.

Their mission work was running smoothly until Sr. Eva, physician, was forced by circumstances to perform surgery on the T’boli datu’s wife one evening. With very limited resources, compensated by a huge dose of faith, Sr. Eva operated on the woman bleeding from a ruptured ovarian cyst and inflamed appendix atop a bamboo table and under a mosquito net with only a humble flashlight as source of light.

“I was so nervous that evening because the datu (chief of the T’boli tribe) was right beside me. I was sure that if his wife died, I would be dead as well”, Sr. Eva recounts. “I praised God because the surgery went well. I was surprised to see the datu’s wife strolling the next day”.

Aside from performing a surgical operation with only the basic equipment, Sr. Eva has also witnessed many people from these far tribes dying without seeing a doctor or a nurse. “While I was there, I found out that they are likely to get sick not only because of virus or bacteria. It’s mostly due to poverty, malnutrition and ignorance. Education is really important. So I decided to start the training of barefoot doctors”.

The remoteness of the mountain people from the educational and medical centres in the city convinced Sr. Eva to train 17 community health workers from the different tribal communities around Lake Sebu. A surgeon by profession, Sr. Eva taught her barefoot doctors basic first aid, wound treatment and minor surgery such as external suturing and incision. “One year after the training, we were able to reduce the incidence of diseases to about one-third. Realising that indigenous people can take care of themselves made me happy and encouraged me to keep on training barefoot doctors”, she said.

The 17 barefoot doctors Sr. Eva trained in Lake Sebu back in 1976 eventually increased to 246 from the 118 tribes around the Philippines. Apart from teaching the tribal community health workers about health and wellness, Sr. Eva’s Foundation of Our Lady of Peace Mission Inc. (FOLPMI) also trained them in leadership, teambuilding, community organizing, livelihood, spiritual and values-formation, and cultural preservation. As part of its holistic charitable approach, the FOLPMI supports tribal communities through livelihood training, scholarships, feeding programs, relocation as well as through medical, surgical and dental missions.

“We are not only concerned about their health but also their financial stability and self-governance. All we need is to inspire and encourage them to discover their talents and skills to be able to survive on their own”, Sr. Eva added.

Apart from assisting indigenous peoples in far-flung areas, Sr. Eva’s FOLPMI also has charitable projects such as feeding programs and community clinics in several squatter colonies in Manila, Navotas, Makati, Las Piñas, Parañaque, and Quezon City as well as in the neighbouring province of Cavite.

FOLPMI also operates a charity hospital aptly named Our Lady of Peace Hospital at their headquarters in Parañaque City. The 100-bed hospital provides poor patients with affordable access to quality medical services and Sr. Eva said they plan to expand the hospital to accommodate 200 more beds.

Looking back, Sr. Eva said “I actually wanted to be a nurse. I also didn’t want to be a surgeon, thinking that this specialisation is usually for men. I have enrolled as internist but the chairman of the department of surgery in the Philippine General Hospital convinced me of the need for surgeons to be sent on missions. And indeed, a surgeon is very much needed on the mountains.”

“I initially questioned why I was pulled out from my medical training and was sent to the mountains. Eventually, I realized that going to the mountains led me to the best way to help the poor and marginalized. But then, all of this work is not mine. It is God’s. It is easy for me to perform surgery, but this work is beyond my profession because as it is evolving and fulfilling, it helps the indigenous people to be closer to God”,
she added.

Despite the great strides and major leaps she has made to help various ethnic groups, Sr. Eva maintains that a lot of work should be done to uplift the dignity of the tribal communities. Education and healthcare are among the many important social services that rarely reach the highlands.

For the future, Sr. Eva only asks for God’s will to be done. “I am already 74 years old. All I ask God is to send the Spirit to teach me what to do because, at this point in my life, I don’t dream of anything anymore but to do what God wants”.