Reagan Hightower, RN, 25, and Dr. Dan McKinley, 29, have never met – but shared an incredible experience.
At a moment’s notice, the two of them bought plane tickets to the Philippines to help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon on record: a category five super typhoon that ripped through Southeast Asia early November 2013. Dr. McKinley was there Nov. 22 - Dec. 5, 2013 and Hightower was there Dec. 8 - 18, 2013.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Hightower, a nurse in the emergency department at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. “I really wanted to get over there, but I figured it would be restricted to Red Cross workers. Then, I found an organization online and submitted my application. They called me the next day and I bought my ticket.”
An hour and a half south on Interstate 35, Mercy Hospital Ardmore’s emergency medicine physician Dan McKinley was packing for his birthday trip to New York City. His plans and pack changed significantly when he was asked to assist another organization’s medical relief mission.
“I knew I wanted to help and started reaching out to some of the organizations I have done relief trips with in the past,” McKinley said. “One of my colleagues referred me to a group and I soon had an email asking me to be ready to go on November 22, my birthday.”
After travelling for almost 24 hours, the two met their respective teams. Hightower was with Heart to Heart, International, an organization whose mission is to provide ongoing medical care and supplies to communities in need worldwide. McKinley was with Remote Area Medical (RAM), a group that focuses on quick response disaster medicine around the globe as well as providing health care in underprivileged areas across the United States.
Some of the team members had no idea what to expect but McKinley helped in the 2010 Haiti earthquake relief efforts and had experience with disaster medicine. Hightower wasn’t new to the experience, either. She was 19 when she went on her first mission trip to Tanzania. Since then, she’s been on missions to Haiti and Honduras and – this year alone – has gone on medical missions to Costa Rica and Rwanda and served in Mercy’s Moore, Okla. tornado relief tent.
Each day in their separate groups, Hightower and McKinley would wake up before sunrise and travel to local villages, seeing up to 300 people per day. (An average Oklahoma City metro hospital emergency department sees 150 people per day.)
“We saw everything from typhoon injuries to undiagnosed skin cancers,” said Hightower. “Some people had gone their entire lives without getting to see a doctor, so we helped them, too. We didn’t want to leave until everyone who wanted medical attention got it.”
The days were long and exhausting. Hightower recalls one day working a nine-hour shift, then driving through six hours of ravaged island back to their base, where they slept in 90-plus degree Fahrenheit temperatures in tents inside a damaged church. She compared the typhoon damage in the Philippines to the worst of the tornado wreckage she saw in Moore, Okla. this summer.
“I remember driving into the very hardest hit neighborhoods in Moore and being heartbroken by the destruction. But I remember driving out of those areas, too.” Hightower said. “In the Philippines, you could drive for hours and hours and never see the end of the devastation.”
Despite their grim surroundings, Hightower said the people were hopeful and happy. Both she and McKinley say they were honored to be able to help.
“I’m grateful to have a job that allows me the freedom to do these expeditions,” said McKinley.
Hightower echoes McKinley’s sentiments.
“On these missions, you connect with people from a completely different life and culture than you,” she said. “It’s neat to be able to serve like that. It’s an incredible way I get to use my professional skills to fulfill my passion for serving Christ.”
When Di Smalley, regional president of Mercy in Oklahoma, heard that these co-workers had taken it upon themselves to answer the call to help, she was inspired.
“Reagan and Dr. McKinley’s initiative and self sacrifice speak to the incredible passion our co-workers have for helping people – here, and around the world,” Smalley said. “I’m really proud of them and their leaders for making arrangements so they could go, too. What an uplifting and selfless group.”
This April, McKinley plans on going to the Dominican Republic for yet another medical mission and in July will return for a pediatric cardiac surgery mission.
Although she hasn’t decided her next trip, Hightower says she always has her ears open for opportunities to help.
For more photos of their trips to the Philippines, click here.