Canton nurse reflects on humanitarian trip to Philippines

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Project Hope volunteer Melissa Fantasia sees a young patient during a mobile clinic outreach in the village of Roxas Ocho.

Project Hope volunteer Melissa Fantasia sees a young patient during a mobile clinic outreach in the village of Roxas Ocho, Philippines, December 10, 2013.

In his 2009 inaugural speech, President Barack Obama spoke of the need for a new era of responsibility, an era in which American citizens would dedicate their efforts to a difficult task. For Melissa Fantasia of Canton, that task involved traveling to the Philippine Islands as part of a lifesaving medical team. In September, Fantasia received the President’s Volunteer Service Gold Medal Award for her devotion to serving people in need.

Thanksgiving 2014 was a far different holiday than Thanksgiving 2013 for Fantasia. A woman of deep faith who generously gives as much of her time to others as she can, Fantasia works as an obstetrical nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital and a cardiac nurse at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. She also attends daily Mass.

Last November, Fantasia’s cell phone rang just after she left St. John’s church the day before Thanksgiving. She had traveled to Colombia and Venezuela on two separate mission trips with Healing the Children in the past and had recently submitted her name as a potential volunteer for a trip with Project Hope and Mass General. When she answered the phone, a representative from Project Hope told her that there was an upcoming briefing on a trip to the Philippines. “Can you be at a meeting at noon?” the person asked her.

The Philippines suffered tremendous damage and loss of life following Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) on November 8, 2013. More than 6,000 people were killed and thousands more were injured in the storm — a category 5 super typhoon and one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded.

Project Hope is a humanitarian relief program that delivers medical supplies and services to countries around the world that have suffered disasters. Typically a medical ship will take volunteers to a devastated area. Because of the damage to roads and infrastructure in the Philippines, however, a ship would be able to arrive at a port, but volunteers would find it difficult to travel from that point to their destination. For this mission, it was decided that the medical team was going to fly to the Philippines. They were going to be called Team Alpha — the first team to be on land for Project Hope.

Fantasia was one of 400 doctors, nurses, EMTs, and psychologists who attended the noontime meeting. In small groups, they introduced themselves to each other. When it was Fantasia’s turn, she spoke of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Margaux, who is Filipina. She and Fantasia’s son Tommy were engaged to be married in Cebu, Philippines, on December 21, 2013. The Fantasias have three other children: son Cory and daughters Diana and Erin.

Fantasia spoke with her family before going to the meeting. Her son Tommy told her, “I would be so proud if you have the opportunity to go and do something.” Erin, who is studying to be a nurse, supported her mother and said that if she could, she would love to go with her.

During the meeting, everyone received pamphlets about traveling to the Philippines and what they should bring if they were one of the six volunteers chosen to be part of Team Alpha. When the meeting ended, Fantasia did not know if she had been chosen nor when the group would leave for their three-week mission.

Two days later, the morning after Thanksgiving, Fantasia went to work at Mass General, but she noticed that her name was not listed on a board in the locker room. When she asked about it, she was told that she would not be working for the next month because she was heading for the Philippines the following day as part of Team Alpha.

“I hadn’t been contacted,” she said. “Then a few minutes later, I got a call.”

Fantasia headed out to collect her passport, immunization records, and personal contact information for Project Hope and then gather items she would need to take with her, including jeans, t-shirts, and a sleeping bag. “Then I also had to pack for the wedding,” she said with a laugh.

Team Alpha left Boston at 8 a.m. on Saturday and flew to Chicago, Tokyo and Manila. Their final destination was a mountaintop province called Capiz, where many of the roads had been washed away. They stayed in Tapaz, a municipality.

“We stayed at the house of the mayor,” Fantasia said. “He had cleaned everything out. He had a satellite phone and each of us called home that night.” The team set out their sleeping bags and mosquito netting to help keep bugs away in the 90-degree heat.

Team Alpha worked with a group of doctors and nurses in a hospital in Tapaz, delivering medical supplies and assessing and treating sick and wounded villagers. The conditions in the hospital were unlike those in American hospitals. Fantasia took a photo of two nurses sewing bandages together on a sewing machine.

Melissa Fantasia poses for a photo with a little boy in Tapaz.

Melissa Fantasia poses for a photo with a little boy in Tapaz.

Tapaz is divided into small towns called barangays, and the team visited different barangays to let people know that medical treatment was available in Tapaz. They helped deliver babies, treated infections, and worked on patients who been injured by flying objects during the storm. An interpreter was always with them.

“The big problem was that they didn’t have food,” Fantasia said. “The typhoon had washed away crops. Each family got a ten-pound bag of rice each month. It makes you value what you have.”

Fantasia says that the memory of one patient will stay with her forever. A woman gave birth to twins, one of whom died at birth. The other lived for ten days. When Fantasia accompanied the mother to her home to bury the baby in the yard, she met the woman’s two older children. She also saw that on one of the poles that hold the blankets and empty rice sacks that make up the walls of their home, the woman had hung her oldest son’s photo and a school certificate, similar to the way that Fantasia has pictures of her children on her dining room wall in Canton.

“That was one of the hardest things for me,” she said about realizing that if she found herself in the same circumstances as the woman, she would not be able to do more for her children. “That mother has those same feelings.”

Nearly three weeks after they arrived, a new team of medical professionals joined them to learn what they had done and to begin to take over their roles. And three days before his wedding, Tommy surprised his mother in Tapaz and stayed for a night. The entire Fantasia family attended Tommy and Margaux’s wedding on December 21.

Fantasia thinks of the mission trips as a way to use the gifts she has been given. “Our mission was about trying to give them hope,” she said. “It could very easily be you or I in that situation. You’ve got to use these gifts to help others. When you stop using these gifts, you stop growing.”

One of Fantasia’s friends had a Mass said for her while she was away, giving others a chance to pray for her work. It touched Fantasia deeply. She feels that she didn’t go on the mission by herself. “I took my whole community in Canton with me,” she said. “I took my whole family and my friends. My colleagues gave up their time for me.”

For more information on Project Hope or to make a donation, go to www.projecthope.org.

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