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Urban Angel Returns to the Philippines

Toronto, February 18, 2011

by Iain Newbigin

The nurses noticed the boy right away, because his stomach was strangely distended. When he got to the front of the line, they asked him what he needed. Vitamins, he replied. His family thought they might help with his constant infections. But why was his stomach bulging? He opened his shirt and the nurses called over the doctor. The boy had been born with an incomplete digestive system, so local doctors had operated to create a stoma, a surgically created hole to allow waste to pass so he would live. But the stoma had herniated over time, and his family was too poor to pay for further surgery. The Urban Angels team operated on his digestive system and repaired the hernia, giving this boy a normal life.

Zenny Gepilano Zenny Gepilano

That's a powerful example of the work Zenny Gepilano and the Urban Angels do. Zenny and the medical team are set to fly to the Philippines to deliver two weeks of care to those in need. There are 88 people going this year on what will be the seventh mission - a lucky combination of numbers, according to Zenny, the founder and chief organizer of this outreach effort. Last year, 62 people made the trip, compared to 27 in the first year – the mission just gets bigger each year. In 2010 the mission was honoured by a June Callwood Volunteer Award, and Zenny was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth at a Queen's Park reception.

All participants use their vacation days and pay for their own flight over. Fifty-five people from St. Michael’s are going, including Dr. Robert Hyland, former physician-in-chief at St. Michael's and currently Medical Director of Philanthropy, and Foundation President Alayne Metrick, with another 15 Canadian and 18 international participants. Foundation board member Tim Griffin has raised over $65,000 in support of the effort. Others are now keen to help: UHN has provided a truckload of supplies. The more profile the mission gets, the more volunteers ask to join, according to Zenny.

Why did she start the mission? Zenny becomes reflective. The Philippines has a population of 90 million. Medical care is beyond the reach of the poor, many of whom must live with conditions that are easily treated in Canada. In Manila she was troubled by the unmet need that she had left behind in her home province. In 1995 she moved to Canada, and started work at St. Michael's in the Ophthalmology Department. There she conceived the idea of a medical mission to her home city to provide eye care - a cost-effective intervention that would provide immediate benefit to Filipinos with eye problems, especially cataracts. That was in 2005, and eye care remains their chief focus.

Once again this year they will be based at the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital in Bacolod City, where they work in tandem with the local staff. Last year the team saw 3,875 patients over nine days, performing 87 minor surgeries and 63 cataract surgeries, as well as distributing nine thousand pairs of glasses. Their goal this year is even more ambitious.

Asked if she finds time to sleep, Zenny laughs - she gets asked that a lot. She emphasizes that the mission is about teamwork, and that everyone has to work hard. She also tells team members that they must focus on dealing with one patient at a time, because the need is so great it can be overwhelming, almost heartbreaking. But she feels fulfilled: "I'm doing my part," says Zenny. The team departs on February 18, returning on March 5.

Follow the team's progress on the Urban Angels Abroad blog.