(First in a series)
ONE OF the stories of selfless dedication and commitment to improve the health condition of a community which has personally touched me is that of the missionary couple Lanie and Ely Latuga. For the last two years or so, they have been living with a Dumagat tribe somewhere in the Sierra Madre mountains of Bulacan.
Giving up the comforts of a middle-class life and leaving one’s family to join a tribal community in the wilderness of the Sierra Madre is certainly not an easy thing to do. The couple has painstakingly educated the tribe on healthy practices, and changed their nomadic tendencies to move from one place to another. Now the tribal members realize it’s worth settling down in one place and developing the community into a better place to live in with self-help projects.
Ely and Lanie helped the Dumagats with various health-promoting activities. They taught the tribal members how to be more conscious of their personal hygiene and sanitation, so as to prevent common illnesses. They were also taught on the proper nutrition, especially for children, making use of readily available indigenous food products. Slowly, they were also convinced on avoiding vices and other unhealthy practices. “We can’t totally eliminate these unhealthy practices,” admits Lanie, “ but slowly, they realize how important a total healthy lifestyle is if they want to live long healthy lives.”
Having a healthy life
Lanie and Ely have inspired them to dream about their future, and they have been helping the tribal members pursue their simple dreams including having a healthy life.
Before they started their missionary work with the tribe, many tribal members—especially children—died yearly due to simple illnesses like diarrhea and lung infections. The couple taught them on personal hygiene and sanitation, and other healthy practices to prevent common medical problems. This has significantly reduced the number of people dying in the community.
Good Samaritans help the couple with medicines and other supplies, and Lanie has virtually served as the local “doctor,” attending to the health needs of the tribe since it would take one whole day to bring a sick patient to the nearest hospital in the lowlands. Lanie has even learned to deliver babies, stitch gaping wounds and treat traumatic injuries.
Whenever she’s confronted with complicated medical problems in the tribe, she consults her doctor-friends by cell phone which she can only use after trekking to a part of the mountain where there is network signal, and dispenses whatever medicines she has available to treat her “patient’s” condition. In many instances, she has tided sick patients over critical periods of their illness until they’re brought down to the nearest government hospital for proper treatment.
Lanie and Ely recently received the Healthy Lifestyle Exemplar Award from the H&L magazine for their exemplary accomplishments in improving the health conditions in the Dumagat community they have become part of. Joining them during the ceremonies were the Dumagat chieftain and two of the tribe elders. The three of them were neatly dressed in long sleeves and neckties—the first time they have worn such an attire, and it also reflects the positive influence the missionary couple has had on the tribal community.
On house arrest
It was good that Lanie and Ely were able to make it to the awarding ceremonies. The couple was recently put on house arrest by the military who suspected them of coddling and treating rebels in the mountains. Making things more complicated, the rebels, on the other hand, accused them of being informants or “spies” of the military.
The military was questioning the medical supplies and surgical instruments they found inside the couple’s make-shift house in the Dumagat community. They seemed to be half-convinced only that the medicines were for the members of the tribe. Despite the risks on their lives coming from both sides, the couple remained steadfast in their missionary work, armed solely with their faith in God and their desire to serve an impoverished community.
Fortunately, they were given the clearance to come down from the mountains to receive their award. The tribal chieftain and two of the elders came down with them, likely not only to witness their beloved missionary couple receive the award, but to make sure they were safe.