By Annette Hinkle
On November 8, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines as the strongest tropical typhoon ever to make landfall.
In the weeks since, military units and humanitarian organizations from around the globe have mobilized in the Philippines to provide assistance to those impacted by the storm. Even now, no one knows just how extensive the devastation is due to the fact that remote regions of the country are totally cut off from civilization and damage and casualties have yet to be calculated.
But at least one organization has pushed out into those remote regions. Last Friday, a team of doctors, nurses and medics from NYC Medics flew from Kennedy Airport to the Philippines and is now working in Guiuan, an area which saw total destruction from the storm and is in dire need of assistance at all levels.
Upon arrival, the NYC Medics, 12 in all, were transported to Guiuan where they set up a clinic and began treating patients. On their second day, nine members of the team traveled by US Navy helicopter to a remote island that had yet to receive help. There they will run a day clinic and assess the ongoing need for medical care.
And here in Sag Harbor, Steve Muth is helping to coordinate the effort which is taking place a world away.
Muth, a village resident, is a founder of NYC Medics whose mission is to send medical teams around the world in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.
While organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross respond on a huge scale, NYC Medics serve those “at the back of the line” in places that don’t make the evening news. Places so remote it can take weeks for help to reach the population in the aftermath of a disaster — or more accurately, a catastrophe.
“A disaster is when things are bad, but local resources can mobilize,” says Muth. “Our definition a of catastrophe is when there’s no 911 to call. That’s what people didn’t understand about Hurricane Katrina. It was a catastrophe, not a disaster.”
“I think Katrina was such an eye opener for so many,” adds Muth. “People lost faith in big government or organizations to get done what needs to be done. There’s a sense that when something big happens the U.N. or the U.S. will take care of everything. But after Katrina, it settled in that that’s not the case. It was too big.”
Ironically, NYC Medics was founded somewhat by accident after Muth, who worked as a paramedic in New York City for 15 years, traveled to Pakistan with friends in the medical field to help out after a massive earthquake struck there in 2005. When they arrived, the U.S. military took Muth and the team to a location where medical help was needed.
“But there was a mistake and they dropped us in the wrong spot and didn’t realize it for a couple days,” says Muth. “They dropped us in the middle of nowhere in a small town overwhelmed with need. There were thousands of patients who had seen no one, many of whom would have died of simple things.”
“We got there on day 12 and thought for sure all the big guys would be in with not much for us to do,” adds Muth. “We couldn’t have been more wrong. That gave us a hunch there was a need — it just wasn’t where people were looking.”
As a result, Muth and his friends founded NYC Medics which sends small, portable medical teams to the most remote locations when disaster strikes. And there is no shortage of need. Muth finds whether it is in Haiti, Japan or Pakistan, when NYC Medics arrive, they always find a population that has yet to receive medical help.
“It’s happened every place where we’ve gone,” he says. “It’s not hard to find profound need, you just have to go further.”
The medics, nurses and doctors who work for NYC Medics do so on a volunteer basis, leaving families and jobs behind and often use their own credit cards to pay for flights abroad where they work for two weeks. Not only are the volunteers top medical personnel in their field, they are also self-sufficient and capable of adapting to extremely difficult working and living conditions around the world.
“What makes someone an experienced emergency room doctor or paramedic is the fact that those, by nature, are the most disorganized and chaotic environments,” explains Muth. “Medics are good at getting the job done. If we need lights, we make our own, if we need tools, we make our own.”
“That’s bad in the surgical theater, but if I’m in a parking lot in the driving rain at 2 a.m. I don’t want the surgeon,” he adds. “One thing medics are good at is adapting. That skill set is critical because it’s complete and total chaos there.”
While the situations may be chaotic, Muth notes what is simple is the medicine necessary to save lives be it a course of antibiotics or an IV to rehydrate someone who has gone too long without water.
And when it comes to saving those lives, time is of the essence.
“In Pakistan, the day we left there, the one person scout from Doctors Without Borders came,” says Muth, noting that at that point, 21 days had passed since the earthquake struck. “I don’t want to poo poo what those organizations do, when Doctors Without Borders did show up, they came with a full standing hospital and it was fantastic.”
“The issue is simply that people don’t have three weeks to wait. They will die,” he says. “That’s the weakness we saw – these groups do fantastic work, but they’re just too slow for people who have basic needs.”
Because getting there quickly is so important, Muth, who is coordinating the Philippines effort from Sag Harbor, notes that often teams will buy a more expensive plane ticket if it will get them to a location faster.
And when this team has completed its two week stint, NYC Medics could send another team, but only if it can raise the money to do so.
“It costs $30,000 to $50,000 per team for a two week stint,” says Muth. “That’s a low number and we’re able to do it for so little because it’s all volunteers.”
Which is why when asked what Sag Harbor residents can do to help, Muth responds with a one word answer — “money.”
“To be fast, we need cash,” says Muth. “We’ve raised the money to send the first team and will raise money to cover their costs, but the next team is off the table until we get that money.”
“We’re looking for an angel investor – someone who understands the model and the fact we could go in 24 hours earlier if we had $20,000 and the medicine in advance,” says Muth. “It’s $25,000 to $30,000 to have a package always ready to go. That would be a huge thing – it would’ve gotten us there 24 or 38 hours earlier if we had that.”
To contribute to NYC Medics efforts in the Philippines and follow their progress, visit their website: www.nycmedics.org.