Mayo team’s mission to the Philippines helps people with clubfoot live better lives

A group of Mayo healthcare professionals went to the Philippines and provided education to medical and surgical staff in Quezon City, Philippines. While there, they also helped treat patients on the island of Palawan. Learn about their mission and what they learned.

George Pujalte, M.D., Family Medicine and Orthopedics, has connections to the Philippine Orthopedic Center in Quezon City, Philippines. His older brother, Brix Pujalte, M.D., is director of the center there.

It was through this connection that the younger Dr. Pujalte, along with a group of Mayo physicians including Daniel Montero, M.D., Orthopedic Surgery, and Winston Tan, M.D., Hematology/Oncology, and other Mayo staff found themselves providing education to medical and surgical staff in the Philippines.

While there, the Mayo team also took the opportunity to help indigent patients and children with clubfoot deformities at a medical and surgical mission at Barangay Irawan and Bahatala Clinic in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. The patients they saw were so poor that many of them had not seen a doctor before and had to walk hours to get to where the Mayo staff were providing treatment.

The News Center caught up with Dr. Pujalte, who is at Mayo Clinic in Florida, to learn more about the inspiration for the trip and lessons learned there.

What inspired you to work with the medical professionals in the Philippines?

I trained at the University of the Philippines. I have first-hand experience with the kind of good work medical professionals do there to try to help patients with very little means, using whatever resources they can find.  

Why the Philippines, and why now?

The Philippines is a country full of contradictions, blessed with people who are friendly and cheerful to a fault, despite their circumstances. Yet they are seemingly caught in an endless cycle of poverty and lack of progress for a myriad of reasons. The members of Orthopedic Humanitarian Initiative, the nonprofit we founded, recognize this, and we try to do all that we can to help the people trapped in conditions that are less humane and livable than we are used to here in the U.S.

The timing of the conference coinciding with the U.S. summer school vacation allowed us to bring our children so that they could see the poverty and lack of resources that their parents had seen when they still lived there. And also so that the kids could appreciate the blessings they have here in the U.S. and learn how to help others in the midst of suffering.

Can you tell us about your work in treating patients in Palawan?

We worked with the Phi Kappa Mu Fraternity and the Phi Lambda Delta Sorority in the Philippines in a medical and surgical mission, helping 316 patients — 294 of them for medical concerns and 22 for surgical conditions. We also visited the Bahatala Clinic, our partner in the care of children with clubfoot deformities, donating money to help them take care of the surgery of 10 children with clubfoot deformities.

We also donated materials they will need in their clinic. The patients we saw were so poor that many of them had not seen a doctor before, had to walk hours to get to us, or could never have been able to afford medications or the minor surgical procedures done during the mission.

What kind of difference were you able to make through this work?

The kind of difference that we were able to make is lasting and life-changing for a lot of the patients. Children with clubfoot deformities are often relegated to a life of disability in the Philippines. By the assistance we gave, 10 of them will at least live relatively normal lives with better ambulation. They will be able to fend for themselves and get more meaningful jobs in their adulthood.

For the patients we saw in the medical mission, just imparting simple knowledge, like telling patients we saw with possible gastric ulcers to avoid spicy food or telling those we saw with high blood pressure to avoid salty food, was crucial information. We also were able to give medications to those who had urinary tract infections, skin infections or possible pneumonia.

What were some of your most memorable moments there?

There were many memorable moments for our volunteers. For me, I remember seeing a patient whose daughter brought him in because he was vomiting bloody food. We diagnosed him as having bleeding ulcers because he especially liked spicy food and was eating it every day. He had abdominal pain and tenderness in the middle of the abdomen also. We gave him some medications to control his stomach acid, which we hoped would at least tide him over until he got used to his new diet.

What struck me was the simple way in which we helped this patient, and he and her daughter were so grateful that they were almost in tears.

Another memorable moment was when the townspeople brought us a lot of food from their own kitchens for lunch in appreciation of our efforts.

Yet another memorable moment was when we left donations of electric fans for the Bahatala Clinic. The indigent patients there have to contend with temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit at times in summer. Electric fans, so simple and relatively inexpensive, were very much appreciated.

I know the other volunteers had so many stories to tell, but these were just a few of my own memorable moments.

What did you bring back with you to Mayo Clinic?

We brought back many good memories of the people we helped and the feeling that we did something good for people who could not have been helped otherwise. We also brought back connections that, perhaps someday, we can leverage. Medical professionals in the Philippines are experts in optimizing resources, and perhaps someday we can learn from them how to decrease waste and misuse of some of the many resources we have here in the U.S.

Our time in the Philippines definitely made us more appreciative of what we have here and taught us to be careful with the resources we have. We are mindful in using what we have, making sure we practice procedures in the Simulation Center repeatedly so that when we do actual procedures, we do not go through materials in a wasteful manner.

Our empathy for patients has definitely increased even more, knowing the many forms of suffering that afflict people mentally, physically and economically, all of which affect overall health. It is less visible sometimes in relatively wealthy countries like the U.S., and so it takes empathy to see the confluence of such factors that affect the overall health of our own patients here.