Haiyan Recovery Update: Healers on a Mission

Rene leading a group in sunrise qigong in Barangay 89-90 in Tacloban City. (Photo courtesy of Rene J. Navarro)

The geographic trajectory of my recent journey to Leyte and Samar in Central Philippines is easy to follow: a flight on Sunday February 2 from Manila took us south to Tacloban City, Leyte, one of the most devastated areas in the country. From the Tacloban airport, we took a rental van to Guiuan, a town in Eastern Samar.

It was a three-hour journey through beautiful but desolate landscape, the sea and islands to the right, mountains to the left, and coconut trees that had lost their fruits and leaves dotting the scene. The last hour of the trip at sunset was over cratered roads, a white-knuckle route made scarier by a race-car wannabe for a driver, tricycles (motorbikes with a sidecar, which are called tuktuk in Thailand and cyclo in Vietnam), and chickens, dogs and people crossing our path in the darkness.  

From what I saw, the destruction—physical, material, psychological and spiritual—was unimaginable. Photos can suggest but not capture the extent and depth of it or its direction. How do you draw a map of psychic damage and injury?

We were speechless as we passed tent cities, corrugated iron shanties, heaps of garbage and debris, steel and wooden frames bent like match sticks, posts snapped in two, uprooted trees, cars sitting on top of rooftops, endless assortment of detritus. I haven’t seen anything like it in my 73 years on the planet. Estimates could be drawn for the wreckage of buildings and assets, but who can arrive at the cost to the human psyche? How about the damage to the children?

The reconstruction is going to take years. Five years is the minimum period before the coconuts bear fruits again, if at all.

From Guiuan, we rented and crowded into a small pump boat to take us to Victory Island 45 minutes away on a calm blue sea. “We” refers to Annie, Ellen, MariCris, Sonia and me. Annie, Ellen and MariCris are INAM Philippines staff and acupuncturists. They did acupuncture. I, an INAM consultant and visiting professor, led Qigong and massage exercises. Sonia, a yoga teacher and raw food chef and a volunteer, taught basic yoga to the children. INAM organized the February mission after a first one in January. 

When, on a bathroom break between Tacloban and Guiuan, I asked a storekeeper if she had bananas to sell; she said they had all been blown away by the wind. The reconstruction is going to take years. Five years is the minimum period before the coconuts bear fruits again, if at all.

Meantime, where will the people find food to eat? It takes about six months for rice to be harvested. Vegetables take at least a month, pigs and chickens at least two to three months.  The land has been salted over by the sea—will that be a problem to agriculture? 

The devastation in Barangay 89-90 in Tacloban City. (Photo courtesy of Rene J. Navarro)

International and local rescue and relief operations are ongoing. The recovery has already started. We saw a group of fishermen building boats at Barangay 89-90 in Tacloban City. But how long will it take just to clear the debris and heal the people of the trauma from the typhoon?

Haiyan—or Yolanda in the Philippines—packed 190-mile winds for several days. Somebody described the experience as like being in a giant washing machine: getting churned this way in the beginning and that way next, and then being squeezed and turned the other way, and then being washed again and again with the repeat cycle on. Well, add the vicious and relentless winds to the mix.

The picture reminded me of the senseless suffering of an innocent child. Why? How do you explain the existence of such existential horror? All it suggested was not only the indifferent universe of Camus (in The Plague) but an angry and merciless god or the trial of Job in the Old Testament.  

The horror recalled an early childhood time back in the mid-1940s when a typhoon broke. My family (father, mother and two small children) lived in a 10 feet x 10 feet house standing a foot above the ground in my hometown of Bamban, Tarlac. The wind blew and whistled for hours.  Afraid we would be drowned, an uncle “evacuated” us to his house next door that had a second floor and was definitely more solid than where we lived. The memory has remained with me until now.  

Rene leading a group massage on the beach in Tacloban City. (Photo courtesy of Rene J. Navarro)

We stopped for two nights at Guiuan to teach and share Qigong, meditation and massage techniques. You’ll probably not see our next stop, Victory Island, on the map because it's just a dot in the sea. Go now, said an area resident, while it's still there.

The unpredictability of the weather made us anxious: in the region people talked about the amihan (northeast monsoon) or the habagat (southwest monsoon), winds that descended even during calm days and nights. There was also a tropical depression the day before we departed Manila, strong enough to be called a typhoon; luckily, it left just when we arrived in Tacloban City.   

At a session in Guiuan, we listened to the women who arrived in boats from different islands. We heard about their fears and nightmares when there is a strong wind or news of another storm, and what triggers their fright and sense of helplessness.

Encouraged by her mother, a 16-year-old girl stood up and told the gathering about her vulnerabilities and worries. She was advised by her doctor to see a psychologist. The stories were so horrendous a group of acupuncturists who had come earlier reportedly had to see a psychologist because they were themselves traumatized and were haunted by “ghosts.”

Rene leading a group in Qigong in Victory Island. (Photo courtesy of Rene J. Navarro)

One question I have often asked myself, how can you relieve human suffering with an acupuncture needle? I know there are acupoints that are effective for stress, for relaxation, but how do you get people to eventually help themselves and find peace and quiet, and the courage to leave that painful period behind?

My own humble approach is, in addition to acupuncture, to teach Qigong, empowerment, tuina/massage, protection and meditation techniques not only to the victims but also to healers. We named the protocol “INAM TaoRen Therapi,” part of the development of a Philippine approach to healing called Integratib Medisin. We combined different acupuncture points—Kiiko’s Triple Intestine near the elbow, CV 6, GV 20, LI 4, LV 3, and a few others on the extremities.

The Qigong and Tuina, involving massage, sounds and visualization included activating the Jing/Well points of the hands and certain areas of the body—Lung Mu, Stomach Mu, back of the knees, Zu San Li, the Gall Bladder line—and  covered the sacrum, lumbar, shoulders and spine. The massage techniques are important because they are an essential link of human connectedness. Touching, a simple gesture, is a way of reaching out. Focused on the spine, the technique can help restore the supportive strength of the Du Mai/Governing Vessel, one of the ancestral channels. 

Sonya leading children in yoga in Barangay 89-90 Tacloban City. (Photo courtesy of Rene J, Navarro)

The protocol is not a complete solution; far from it in fact, but it is what we can offer for now. Eventually, the acupuncturists, the teachers and the healers (there are also psychologists there) will leave and the typhoon victims will have to fall back on their own resources  and face or exorcise their ghosts. Alone, perhaps in the middle of the night, an area resident will need accessible techniques to cope. Or, together the victims will have to support each other ultimately with methods of facing up to the traumas—methods of self-cultivation or nurturing the body, mind and spirit. 

So we advised them to make the practices an integral part of their lives and their culture. We trained them—I hope well enough for the short time we had—to be familiar with the methods so that they can do the practices as well as teach them to friends and relatives in their remote neighborhoods and villages.

Parts of the armamentum are simple methods of breathing, healing sounds and colors, meditation, and movements of taoyin or Qigong and massage to learn to let go, reestablish human connection and restore the spirit. Hopefully, the practices will provide some form of relief and strength now and closure later.

INAM Philippines is only one of the many different organizations providing healing and therapy to the population. The INAM staff is planning to return in March. I will join them in Guiuan, Tacloban and the farther island of Homonhon in early August.

For more information:
Integrative Medicine for Alternative Healthcare Systems (INAM) Philippines Inc. 

Rene J. Navarro

Rene J. Navarro

Rene J. Navarro is a licensed acupuncturist, teacher of Classical Yang Family Tai chi chuan fist and weapons forms, Chi Nei Tsang organ massage, neidan/internal alchemy, and Daoist Yang-Sheng (Nourishing Life) regimen. He is a published poet and essayist.