Dr. Zaragoza honored for medical mission work

WYOMING — Most of them said they took more out of it than they gave.

On Saturday, volunteers for “Operation We Care” looked back on 25 years of medical missions to the Philippines.

They also thanked the man who made it possible, Dr. Rafael Zaragoza, who worked tirelessly to organize the trips to bring free medical and surgical care to needy people in the Philippines.

Dr. Rafael Zaragoza of Camden, who performed medical mission work in the Philippines for 24 years, gets a hug from nurse practitioner Eve Baldwin of Milford, who accompanied Dr. Zaragoza on a trip in 2003. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Dr. Rafael Zaragoza of Camden, who performed medical mission work in the Philippines for 24 years, gets a hug from nurse practitioner Eve Baldwin of Milford, who accompanied Dr. Zaragoza on a trip in 2003. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Wayne Stultz, business manager for “Operation We Care,” presented Dr. Zaragoza with a plaque after the dinner at Wild Quail Country Club.

“Presented in appreciation and honor for providing extraordinary health services for the poor, medically needy in the Philippines,” it said.

The dinner was bittersweet, though, because this winter marked one year since the last “Operation We Care” trip.

The organization discontinued the missions for a number of reasons — including tougher restrictions for medical licenses and the rising cost of travel.

The group is getting older too. Dr. Zaragoza is 85.

The annual missions started in 1989 with the Society of Philippines Surgeons in America.

Dr. Zaragoza was a founding member of the society in 1970, which made providing medical services to the Philippines one of its goals.

In 1995, Dr. Zaragoza organized a second mission, “Operation We Care.”

That first year, he lead five medical personnel from Delaware to the Philippines, traveling with another group from Ohio. The trip was sponsored by the Dover and Gallipolis, Ohio, Rotary Clubs.

Dr. T. Noble Jarrell called Dr. Zaragoza a man with a big heart, who was both a leader and a mentor.

Dr. Jarrell said Dr. Zaragoza was the kind of man who — after spending 8 to 12 hours in the operating room — would sit down, dog-tired, only to jump right back up when another person needed an operation.

For Dr. Zaragoza, though, it was a group effort.

“I think this award belongs to all of us,” he said Saturday.

“…we have touched a lot of lives, helped improve their health and helped save other lives.”

Over the years, volunteers traveled up and down the Philippines on their annual visits.

A slide show Saturday showed decades of memories: volunteers posing in front of the hospital in their scrubs, the daily schedule on the wall, packed with procedures, and children waiting for operations with cleft lips.

Each trip carried with it its own special memories, Dr. John Glenn said.

“I was hooked after the first trip.”

Once, the power went out during an operation and there was no generator; hospital staff crowded into the operating room to fan the volunteers while they worked.

The missions were never easy.

The flight to the Philippines took about 20 hours. And once the group landed, their days and nights were suddenly flipped — there was an 11 hour time difference.

Almost immediately, they were struck too by the poverty too.

“There’s a wide disparity in income for the Philippines and there isn’t much of a safety net,” Dr. Jarrell said.

“The people who are poor are very poor and they’re not able to take care of themselves.”

Illnesses often go untreated. People wait months for the free surgeries, and the hospitals became so crowded that cots were set up in hallways and lobbies.

“We’re only there for a week and there are so many people who need our services,” said Dr. Michael Zaragoza, Dr. Zaragoza’s son.

“We kind of had to do some makeshift work within the facilities to accommodate those people.”

Medical personnel also often needed to make do without while they worked.

“You work with what you’ve got,” Dr. Jarrell said.

“You don’t have everything you have here.”

The patients never complained about the pain, though, Dr. Jarrell said. They were just grateful.

When the “Operation We Care” group came into town, a welcome committee was usually there to greet them, holding a banner.

Along with the long days, the trips also meant fast friendships.

“It’s an intense week. We are together every day, every hour,” Dr. Jarrell said.

Most of all, though, it was rewarding work.

“Each mission had a profound impact on all of us,” Dr. Jarrell said.

“It’s a wonderful chance to help people that weren’t getting the help otherwise,” he said.

“That’s the bottom line.”

20dsn Operation We Care Reunion 002

Dr. Ralph Zaragoza, second from right, poses with Dr. John Glenn of Dover, son Dr. Michael Zaragoza of Camden and Dr. Jerry Jarrell of Dover. Dr. Glenn and Dr. Michael Zaragoza were among the original doctors to accompany Dr. Zaragoza in 1995 on his first trip to the Philippines and Dr. Jarrell started taking the mission trips in 2001.


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