An MGH pharmacist's knowledge of local language and customs played a crucial role in the MGH disaster relief effort in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan.

Disaster relief comes in many forms. When Typhoon Haiyan plowed across the central Philippines in November, 2013, Massachusetts General Hospital mobilized quickly, sending four teams of medical professionals, including one pharmacist, to aid the people most affected.

“I didn’t know what a pharmacist could do in a disaster,” says Mass General pharmacist Carmela Berlin, RPH, recalling the moment the hospital called for disaster relief volunteers. But she knew she wanted to go. Having grown up in Visayas, the same region of the Philippines now devastated by the typhoon, she speaks the local Ilonggo language and knows the local customs. Once she and the Mass General team arrived in the disaster zone to partner with the International Medical Corps, she instantly got to work.

Typhoon Haiyan disaster relief pharmacist Carmen Berlin
The first MGH disaster relief team dispatched to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan included pharmacist Carmela Berlin, RPH.

“As soon as we met the team from International Medical Corps, they said, ’We hear you have a pharmacist,’” says Miriam Aschkenasy, MD, MPH, deputy director of Mass General’s Global Disaster Response Program who led the first of four Mass General disaster relief teams deployed to the Philippines. “She was put to work immediately helping to catalog and sort boxes and boxes of pharmaceuticals.” Later, the pharmacist went into the field with the mobile medical clinics.

Taking Disaster Relief Seriously

Mass General takes global disaster relief seriously. When the call went out for help in the Philippines, nearly 400 staff members volunteered to go. In collaboration with the International Medical Corps and Project Hope, Mass General sent 25 volunteers in four teams to provide medical assistance to the devastated regions, primarily the central region of Visayas. Teams went to work in and around Cebu City, Roxas City and Tapaz. The terrific power of Typhoon Haiyan left a death toll of 5,000 with more than 1,500 people reported missing. An estimated 13 million people were affected by the typhoon.

The goal of Mass General’s Global Disaster Relief Program is, “to provide a professional humanitarian response to those that are affected by disasters,” Dr. Aschkenasy explains. “We have the knowledge, skill set and experience to make sure that the international standards for humanitarian response are respected and met and we set an example for other medical and academic institutions for how to respond in a professional way.”

After landing on Nov. 18 in Cebu City and working briefly in that area, Mrs. Berlin, Dr. Aschekansy and their them team of seven Mass General health professionals traveled to remote villages outside of Roxas City to set up mobile clinics in hard-hit areas. Along the way, they saw the devastation: forests uprooted, power lines down and homes flattened.

Upon arriving in a village, the MGH disaster relief team coordinated with local medical personnel and police to set up tables and see patients.

“People there have two kinds of houses,” explains Mrs. Berlin, who lived there until age 14 when her family moved to the United States. “The wealthier people have concrete block houses but the poorer people have bamboo houses. All the bamboo houses were flattened to the ground. People were homeless.”

Reassurance as Part of Disaster Relief

Upon arriving in a village, the MGH disaster relief team coordinated with local medical personnel and police to set up tables and see patients. “My table was the next stop after the doctors or nurse. I would fill the person’s prescription and explain the drugs to them,” the pharmacist says. To some people, she gave vitamins. “When food is scarce, you’re not getting all the necessary food groups and you need vitamins,” she explains.

Mrs. Berlin recalls an emotional encounter with an elderly woman who came to her table for vitamins. “I explained to her that she was doing well and that nothing was wrong with her,” Mrs. Berlin says “She was so happy and grateful just to hear that she was going to be okay. I found that many people just needed to be reassured that they are going to be okay. Our presence gave them a sense of that.”

Every day was different and each village was different, Mrs. Berlin says. While in some villages the people seemed to be mostly over age 80, other villages were filled with young children. One day, the MGH team took a boat to a small island village that had been particularly hard hit. The people “showed us the waist-high water marks where the water had flooded the entire island,” she says. Fortunately, says Mrs. Berlin, “it was a fishing village and the people had climbed into their boats and waited until the water subsided. No one drowned.”

Looking back, Carmela Berlin is happy to know that a pharmacist can play an important role in disaster relief. “As it turned out, they really needed pharmacists. I definitely had something to offer,” she says brightly.

A Father’s Surprise Visit

While working in the Philippines, Mrs. Berlin learned that her father, who lives in the United States, had arrived in the Philippines on business just before Typhoon Haiyan hit. He rode out the storm at a family owned chicken farm in Bacolod City on the island of Negros. Days later, learning that his daughter was only three hours away by boat and bus, he traveled to see her. “We had a quick meal and the next morning we had breakfast,” Mrs. Berlin says. “But I was working, so I really couldn’t spend much time with him.” Nevertheless, she was relieved to know that her father and the farm had come through Typhoon Haiyan unharmed.

Once home in the United States, Mrs. Berlin relaxed briefly with her children, but the next day she returned to her job at the Mass General North Shore Outpatient Cancer Center in Danvers. Looking back, she’s happy to know that a pharmacist can play an important role in disaster relief. “As it turned out, they really needed pharmacists. I definitely had something to offer.” she says brightly. “And it really helped out that I spoke the language.”

You Can Help

You can support Mass General’s ongoing efforts to stay prepared for disaster relief efforts around the globe by donating to the MGH Disaster Response Fund.

Please visit the Mass General Center for Global Health Facebook Page for updates on the situation in the Philippines and other Mass General disaster response work.

We thank you for your generosity and giving spirit to help those so desperately in need.