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John Santer brings a young Filipino child back to surgery during his medical mission to Catarman, Northern Samar, from Feb. 1-7. (Submitted photo)

Local family uses talents to heal in the Philippines

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Over a week’s time, Susie and John Santer, along with their daughter Billie Jo Germain, saw thousands of people come through the doors of the Philippine Minnesota Medical Association’s medical, dental and surgical mission to Catarman, Northern Samar.

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“This is my second time and my husband’s third,” Susie Santer said. “The group goes to a different place every time. The 70-75 people who make up the group have many different professions back home, including a retired state patrol officer and a high school principal.”

All three of the family members work in the medical field in one form or another and decided that they could use their skills for more good by going on the medical mission and helping people in need. John Santer works for AIW (Anesthesia Inc. of Wisconsin) as a certified registered nurse anesthetist, while his wife Susie works for Westfields Hospital as a registered nurse in the Medical Surgical Unit. Their daughter Billie Jo Germain works for Hudson Physicians Group as a certified medical assistant.

“My husband John, who worked for Regions Hospital at the time, and I were talking about what we could do to help others since we made a pretty good living, when he was approached by a colleague at the hospital to come on the mission,” Santer said. “He said he would, but only if I could come with as well. So we went the first time, before I became a nurse, and I was in the OR running errands for them.”

The missions are sponsored by the Philippine Minnesota Medical Association and assisted by Hope for the City, a nonprofit in Minnetonka, Minn., that collects used medical equipment and ships it to missions. In the past decade, the group has collected and distributed $500 million worth of used equipment that other hospitals in Minnesota have deemed obsolete, but which hospitals and clinics in the Philippines are more than happy to use and see as state of the art compared to what they are using.

All the missions are set up and ran by Dr. Bernard Quebral. Most of the supplies come from Hope for the City out of St. Louis Park, Minn., along with many Twin Cities hospitals. All the care and surgeries the group provides are free to the people.

“They are the happiest people in the world and they have next to nothing,” Santer said. “They don’t always go to the doctor because it is really expensive and they have to pay upfront for the procedures they need done. Despite that, they are still really happy and content.”

The city of Catarman, in Northern Samar, is the capital of Northern Samar, Philippines, and is the largest town in the province in terms of land area and population.

“The area we were in this time was very hot and steamy with a lot of critters running around the place, even in the hospital areas,” Santer said. “The plumbing was also less than ideal. You had to wash your hands and hair outside.”

For first-timer Germain, the experience was like nothing she had done before.

“It was an excellent experience and definitely one I will not forget,” said Germain, who is just 23 years old. “We did a lot of major and minor surgery and outpatient stuff while we were there. I mostly helped with the surgery schedule, while my dad helped with putting people to sleep for their procedures. There was a lot of work to be done and I think we saw and helped well over 5,000 people.”

Along with the procedures the Santers and Germain helped with, their medical mission group also helped with the outpatient clinic, dental and extraction clinic, major and minor surgery, diabetes education, pharmacy, orthopedic supplies (crutches, canes and walkers) and gave out hundreds of eyeglasses to patients.

“We could see more than 800 people a day while we were working, from people with general concerns to more serious things,” Germain said. “The first day we were there we didn’t have any translators, so that was a challenge and made things rough for a while. But eventually things smoothed out and worked much more efficiently.”

Along with experiencing working with people of a different culture and gaining experience in her field, Germain, who is a nursing student at St. Cloud State University, got the chance to try new foods, new activities and meet new people.

“Every night after work we would have a traditional Philippines meal and then we might go out for karaoke and sing as a whole group,” Germain said. “It was really fun to try new things, especially the food. I like to travel a lot, so this trip was a lot of fun.”

After experiencing so many new things on the medical trip, Germain would love to get the chance to get back to the Philippines and help in the future if she is able.

“I would absolutely do it all again,” Germain said. “You see the stories about those places on TV and how you can help out those communities from afar, but when you go over there and help out in person you feel so much more empowered. It was a real eye-opener just how attached I got to the people over there in such a short time. I didn’t want to leave.”

On her second trip to the Philippines, Susie Santer was able to help out more than before because she had finished her nursing training and could interact more with the doctors and patients.

“I definitely felt like I could help out more and use my skills much more effectively this time around,” Santer said. “It was different to be in real close with the patients and doctors and have that kind of contact as a health care provider.”

The Philippine Minnesota Medical Association and the Hope for the City group make a trip to the Philippines every two years and spend the time in between the trips fundraising and gathering supplies to take with them. The Santers and Germain both want to go back next time, but each person has to pay their own way for the trip, which costs more than $17,000. However, the trips are about more than the money or the recognition for the Santers and their family.

“We don’t do this to be recognized but to make life better for the less fortunate. We can’t save the world, but we can help make it better,” Santer said. “We are so lucky to have the opportunity to do this work and love the work we do. It is hard for people here in the USA to understand what the world looks like outside or our borders. We have poor impoverished people here, but the impoverished in the Philippines is nothing like here. It is nothing like you have ever seen in the United States.”

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Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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