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Grand River docs help Philippine typhoon survivors

A medical humanitarian team that included two Grand River Health physicians, stops for a photo before boarding the helicopter for a flight to a remote village in the Philippines to treat survivors of a Nov. 8 typhoon.
Contributed Photo |

For nine days – including Thanksgiving – Dr. Bob Derkash and Dr. Kevin Coleman could not shower.

For the first four of those nine days, they didn’t have a change of clothes or any other personal items. And they were given a bed mat infested with bed bugs.

It was not a reality survival TV show, and Coleman said he would “absolutely” do it all again, if needed.



Coleman and Derkash helped provide medical humanitarian aid to some of the millions of people in the Philippines who survived Super Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the island country on Friday, Nov. 8.

Coleman, chief of staff at Grand River, and Derkash, an orthopedic surgeon, got involved in the effort through a world wide relief group and were paired with five fellow physicians from Harvard, plus four more from the United Arab Emirates.



Coleman and Derkash flew to Hong Kong on Wednesday, Nov. 20, then on to the hardest hit city, Tacloban City, the capital of the Philippine province of Leyte. It is approximately 360 miles southeast of Manila and had a population of more than 22,000 people before the typhoon.

Coleman described the damage caused by the typhoon as “like dropping a nuclear bomb on a city the size of Fort Collins, then sending a 25-foot tall surge of water through the city.”

“You look around and for five or six blocks there isn’t a single building standing,” he added. “We saw bodies in the streets, and this was weeks after the typhoon. Dr. Derkash went to Haiti after their earthquake [in 2010] and he said the devastation in the Philippines was worse than Haiti.”

The damage to the city’s airport and main hospital due to the 195 miles an hour sustained winds was “beyond belief, but the hospital still had a dry roof, so we’d send some patients there,” Coleman added.

Once they were set up at one of many mobile medical communities, Coleman said people came for help by the hundreds each day.

“We treated as many as 4,000 people a week,” he added. “And a lot of them had not had any help for weeks after the typhoon.”

Coleman, who works in the emergency room at Grand River Hospital and sees patients at the Grand River clinic in Battlement Mesa, said the care he and Derkash provided was very different than what they do locally.

Up to 350 measles immunizations were given in a day, Coleman noted, since a key concern was infections and sanitary-related problems.

Coleman said Derkash treated one person who had suffered with an untreated dislocated shoulder for two weeks.

“It’s a lot harder to get the shoulder back in place after it’s been like that for that long,” Coleman said.

Coleman said helicopters also ferried doctors to small, remote villages to help treat those residents who could not get out of their villages due to the damage left behind by the typhoon.

Medical help came from many other countries, too, Coleman said, including a Chinese medical ship just off the coast and an Australian Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, unit that performed between six to 12 surgeries a day.

“It really helped renew my faith in humanity” to see the response from countries around the world, Coleman said. “To see so many people work together so well under those conditions was just so encouraging.”

Both doctors returned to the U.S. on Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving.

Asked if he would travel to another such medical emergency somewhere around the globe, Coleman quickly replied, “absolutely.”

“I’d say the whole thing was the time when I was most appreciated as a human being, not just as a doctor,” Coleman said. “We never felt crowded or rushed to do what we had to do. And I know it meant a lot to the people there.”


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