Airman volunteers to help those less fortunate

Courtesy photo

Thousands of miles away in remote Philippine villages there are families who lack access to medication and basic health care. The medical needs of the people in the Philippines are tremendous, especially in the rural areas, where many suffer from treatable ailments.

Every January for the past five years, Master Sgt. Cesar Jurilla, 163rd Communications Squadron, California Air National Guard, March Air Reserve Base, and his wife Cora travel to these remote locations. They are part of a team of 25-50 doctors, nurses and non-medical assistants who volunteer with the Filipino Ministry of the Diocese San Bernardino in cooperation with Bishop Gerald Barnes Diocese of San Bernardino.

“A goal of the medical mission trip is to discover and rediscover Filipino roots through indigenous people in the Philippines – to know their health situation and to respond to their medical needs,” said Jurilla.

Most of the patients are kids, mothers and senior citizens because the adult men are working out in the rice fields. However, the volunteers have previously treated 12-year-olds for back pains from working in the rice fields before going to school.

The team sets up in one location for a couple of days then moves to another location. About 500 patients are treated each day for anything from infections, headaches, stomachaches and even malnutrition. At one location, people from four or five villages will seek treatment, with some walking very far distances.

A typical day begins with Jurilla loading all the medicines in the vehicle and driving to the location to set up the different stations so when the doctors, nurses and pharmacy staff arrive everything is ready. 

“In the mornings, there is a lot of preparation. Non-medical people like me are in charge of logistics and setting up. I help calm the patients and assure them that everyone will be seen. I tell them not to rush and not to push,” he said. “After they’re seen by the doctor and get their prescriptions, they crowd the pharmacy because they’re afraid they won’t get their medicine. If we run out of medicine for patients, we will donate our personal stuff like aspirin because it’s difficult to refuse villagers who walk two to three hours to get to us, but they arrive late so most of the medicine is gone.”

An inventory of medication is conducted at the end of every day to help determine what will be needed for the next mission.

“After the pharmacy collects the prescriptions we account for what medicine we passed out. At the end of our hot wash we know what was exactly in demand. For example, if high blood pressure meds are not in demand, we can lower the amount for next time. If there was a medicine in short supply, we can buy more the next time. There are always lessons learned,” said Jurilla.

Jurilla has to expect the unexpected sometimes and works with local security to ensure the process runs smoothly and safely. On their first trip, while the volunteers went out to take a group photo, someone stole their antibiotics.

“I have to be aware for safety and security as well. I keep accountability of our doctors, nurses and non-medical people. At the same time I work with the local people, local security and local volunteers because they speak the dialect. I let them know what is needed,” said Jurilla.

Through the assistance of contacts in the Philippines, the team decides where they will set up before making the journey overseas. Local priests survey the locations most in need and assign numbers for the patients to show up at a designated time.

“We don’t want to deal with the red tape and waste time,” said Jurilla. “It is not for us to…choose who can or can’t be seen.”

The medical expenses all come from donations and fundraisers. The expenses for the team members are all out of pocket.

“We pay our own way to the Philippines,” said Jurilla. “Cora and I spend about $2,100 each, including airfare, lodging and meals.”

As if this is not enough, Jurilla and Cora also purchase additional items to pass out to the patients, such as vitamins, toothpaste, toothbrushes and flip flops for people who don’t have shoes. “One time we saw some kids going to school carrying their flip flops. They didn’t want them to get dirty or broken in the mud so they would carry them and then wash their feet and put on their new sandals once they arrived at school.”

The Jurillas provide a 30-day supply of vitamins for children and adults due to the lack of vitamins in their diets and some are malnourished.

“The bad thing is the kids’ vitamins come in Gummy Bears and sometimes they take them all in one day, thinking the vitamins are candy. Some of the kids came back the next day asking us for more vitamins,” he said.

The volunteers often stay with local host families due to very few lodging facilities in the remote areas. Some of the places they visit have been severely damaged from typhoons or earthquakes over the years, destroying some crops.

“We brought canned goods to our host families. We carry our own stuff so I brought canned Vienna sausages which is lighter. They were so happy – It was like Christmas for them. This family was so nice they shared it with other relatives. They appreciate the little things in life. You wouldn’t think it was much, but to them it is,” said Jurilla.

The volunteers often share their snacks and on one trip Jurilla shared beef jerky. Jurilla said “To my surprise one of the kids saved it to share with his family to have meat with their dinner. This is how much they appreciate.”

Jurilla was born in the Philippines. His father moved the family to the U.S. in order to have a better life.

“Every time we go back we see how fortunate we are. That’s why rediscovering our roots and giving back to the community is important – we feel grateful,” he said. “Some of the people are afraid to approach us but I explain to them that I was born there and grew up there. I tell them anything is possible. My dad grew up here on a farm.

“It feels good giving back. People approach me and say, ‘Thank you for being here for us. Now, instead of buying medicine we can buy food.’ It feels good.”