Woodbury nurse Peggy Moore was on her first medical mission trip to the Philippines. In front of her stretched a sea of people wanting free medical care. Many had waited hours after traveling long distances by bicycle, boat or on foot.
"I cried because there were so many people waiting in line, just thousands of people waiting their turn," Moore recalled last week at HealthPartner's Woodbury clinic, where she works for a doctor who's leading another such mission trip beginning this week.
"It was overwhelming," she said. "It just touched me to think those people could wait for years without getting any health care. And here, people come and they have a sore throat and they want to be fixed that same day."
So Moore is embarking Thursday on her fifth mission with her boss, Dr. Bernard Quebral, chief physician of HealthPartners in Woodbury.
After two years of preparation, Quebral is leading 75 medical specialists, including surgeons and operating room nurses, to his hometown of Alaminos, Pangasinan, and on to Bataan, where eight out of 10 people live in poverty.
The team plans to examine 8,000 Filipinos in eight days, working alongside local health-care providers. They'll be performing hysterectomies, removing large goiters, and providing other badly needed care.
The team will also distribute more than $1.1 million in medical supplies and equipment that is waiting in the Philippines in two 40-foot containers, which were shipped earlier.
They'll train Filipino doctors and nurses to use donated equipment that had been gathering dust in Twin Cities hospital basements. Each missionary also will carry a 50-pound box of medicine on the plane, Quebral said.
This is the sixth mission for Quebral, who said he came up with the idea in 1998 while president of the Philippine Minnesota Medical Association, a group of physicians with ties to the Philippines.
"If you do something good, people recognize that and they will help," said Quebral, who is often called Dr. Q.
Missions every two years
His first mission was in 2002, when he went with 21 medical workers to Batangas, near the South China Sea. They distributed $350,000 in medical supplies and treated nearly 4,000 patients.
He's led a burgeoning group every two years since then. The trip in 2010 involved 57 missionaries.
Most of the supplies this time came from Allina. They include seven anesthesia machines, each worth about $35,000.
The missions are sponsored by the Philippine Minnesota Medical Association and assisted by Hope for the City, a nonprofit in Minnetonka that collects used medical equipment and ships it to missions, said employee Mike Muelken.
In the past decade, he said, his group has collected and distributed $500 million worth of used equipment that Minnesota hospitals, mostly in the metro area, have deemed obsolete -- but which hospitals and clinics in the Philippines appreciate as "state of the art."
Muelken said Quebral brought 60 to 70 volunteers to warehouses to work on Saturdays through the summer to clean and repair equipment after long work weeks at their practices.
"I'm blessed to be able to work with these kind of people," Muelken said.
Quebral, who immigrated from the Philippines, talks of how lucky he is to be in the United States, Muelken said, "but he always remembers what happens behind him."
Healing their homeland
Quebral was born 48 years ago in a farming and fishing community about 100 miles north of Manila.
The son of a doctor and a midwife, he grew up seeing his parents tend to the poor.
"What you see early in life becomes a part of you," Quebral said.
He recalled one pitch-black night when he was about 10, and his midwife mother was called out. They rode in a car for two hours, then in a narrow canoe as two men paddled on a dark river, the young boy clinging to his mother. In a tiny hut lit by a kerosene lamp, she delivered a baby and then turned down the money the new mother tried to hand her: five pesos -- about 10 cents.
"She said just use it to buy milk," Quebral recalled.
Treating children is a cornerstone of his mission. Four plastic surgeons will perform "life-changing" surgery on cleft palates, which will enable those children to learn to communicate and lead normal lives, Quebral said.
"These patients will never have the money to have their futures fixed, if not for medical missions," he said.
Teresa Medina, a Filipina coordinator of the mission, agrees. She directs Twin Cities Orthopedics Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance muscular and skeletal health, and is going on her fourth mission trip.
On a 2006 mission to Samar, in the southern Philippines, Medina met a beautiful teen who covered her face when she smiled because she was missing her four front teeth. Medina paid for her dental plate.
"It only cost $20 and it changed her life," she said.
On this mission, about 700 dental patients are to be seen, Quebral said.
There are challenges, too, for the missionaries, including safety. The State Department warns against traveling in the Philippines because of kidnappers and terrorists.
Quebral said he's contacted local authorities as well as insurgents. He's set up nighttime, on-call emergency help so guerillas can get bullets removed and other care, without being arrested.
"You have to work with both sides when you go there," he said. "There are people who will protect you."
Medina said it's key to work in safe areas, and to partner with government officials for help with security as well as transportation, lodging and food.
Quebral, as he readied for Thursday's trip, said he'll be contacting his physician friends in other states, suggesting they begin missions, too.
"We'd like to share," he said. "We just have to convince hundreds more, thousands more, to do this."
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038