what happened to me so many long years ago, in another life. never forgotten, never the same.
The stars twinkled in the dark sky above me as I turned my face up to escape the scratchy horse blanket wrapped around the bamboo poles that created a stretcher for me. Then all was black again as the nausea, pain, and exhaustion swept me away into oblivion. My last conscious thought was of absolute peace and trust... “God is watching over me, they won’t drop me, somehow I will survive this...”
It had started out as another outreach into the province, this time to a tribe called the Dumagat up in the mountains of Bulacan just north of Metro Manila. So many unknowns, but we were excited to go. What was described to us as a one-hour walk we later found out was, for us, three and a half hours tough hiking over 5 mountains full of wild jungle, rice paddies, waterfalls, rivers, and muddy carabao trails. We had got a late start so the hardest part of the trek was at high noon. Ate Elizabeth, Cathee, Edelyn, and our team of dentists, plus our contact person, Pastor Popie, finally arrived at the village of this tribe at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Ate and I were the first foreigners they had ever seen, and I don’t think they were too impressed with me because I stumbled in barely conscious, collapsed on the bench, and began to vomit. It was my fourth episode of sunstroke, brought on by the hot sun on my red hair, lack of water, and exhaustion.
Cathee mixed me up a rehydrating solution and I drank it down and after about an hour was able to sit up and eat and then help with the medical check-ups. But I told worried Pastor Popie, “I cannot walk back out of here. Either we’ll have to stay overnight or get us a carabao sled to ride or something!” Well, the “something” turned out to be a mountain stallion for me and a mild-tempered gelding for Ate Elizabeth. Neither of us had been on horseback since childhood. But we were willing to try out of desperation. She at the age of 58 was doing much better than I, much to my dismay.
As we clung bareback to our little horses, going straight up and then straight down the mountains, it should have been a beautiful experience with the scarlet sunset fading into the west and stars beginning to twinkle in the dark sky. The quiet evening sounds, the fireflies twinkling about us, and the clean stark beauty of the mountains by twilight would have been exquisite had I not felt so ill. But my pounding headache began to return and as the darkness settled in and I realized the stony cliffs we were clambering up and down were getting steeper and steeper, and my legs wouldn’t hold out much longer, I began to contemplate just falling off the horse and lying on the ground. Clinging to vines as we lurched and slid down a rocky, muddy canyon, and my poor little horse panted and groaned, my little gold ring slid off my finger and was lost forever. That did it. Sucking on my bleeding palms, I slid off the horse and said, “I can’t do it any more.” Ate couldn’t get off, so I hauled her off, straight-legged, and she staggered away from her horse and we joined the others who were walking.
We were still an hour by foot from where we had left the van. The flashlights used to light our path were setting off huge fireballs of pain inside my head. I began to vomit again every few minutes. In desperation I chewed down a Paracetamol, knowing it wouoldn’t do any good- I had left my special medication at home. We slithered over the jungle trails, sometimes falling, sometimes kneedeep in mud. Clutching the bamboo and the vines, sliding, collapsing over and over again. It was like a nightmare. Pastor Popie pleaded with me, “Hold my hand, Ate Denie,” and I gripped his muddy brown arm with desperation until he was dragging me along.
We were at the end of the line...I vomited again...finally I couldn’t take another step, stopped, clung to a bamboo pole, gasping for breath, slid to the ground, laid down on the wet jungle floor and realized I couldn’t go on. Dimly I heard Popie calling after the others to bring two bamboo poles and a blanket. I thought, “How can Ate Elizabeth keep on walking? I’m so embarrassed.” But I could not move.
The very worst moment came when I realized they were carrying me across the rice paddy, sinking knee-deep in the mud so that the water was up to their waists. The frantic tone in their voices as one of them balanced me on his back (I think) gave me momentary worry, then I thought, “No, I have watched these men run up mountainsides today carrying hundreds of pounds of clothing and flour, so I don’t think they are going to drop me.” I had perfect confidence in those strong, wiry brown arms and backs and legs.
Lying in the back of the van, shaking with chill and vomiting again, yet so thirsty, I wondered if we would ever get home. Cathee bent over me to ask if I wanted to go straight home or rest first at Doctora Karen’s (one of the dentists). I whispered, “Go straight home”. I don’t remember the ride home or who drove. The next thing I knew was Dennis calling me to get out of the van. “I can’t move,” I whispered. So he and Popie carried me up the stairs, and placed me on my bed, covered with mud as I was. I couldn’t even uncurl my body from the fetal position or unclench my fists because of the spasms in my muscles.
The pain and nausea swept over me in waves. Dennis asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I don’t remember what I answered. Next thing I knew, a jabbing pain in my hand and Bernadette, our senior midwife, was there trying to start an IV. She was successful on her second try. I begged for a Mersyndol pill, my usual migraine medication which I had forgotten to take along on the trip, and chewed one down, fighting the nausea. About 20 minutes later, blessed relief from the excruciating headache and I fell asleep. I wakened about 3 hours later feeling much better, able to move a little, the headache gone. Bernadette, Janine and Dennis stayed with me all night. By morning I could get up to go to the CR but was still sore and stiff. I couldn’t walk for about three days.
That is the story of my trip to the Dumagat tribe. I have the mountain men to thank for carrying me out of there. My life was in their hands and I am eternally grateful. I dimly remember one of the pastors of the tribe kneeling beside me and praying earnestly with tears as I lay on the grass. “Oh Lord, touch Sister Denie,” he prayed. My heart was full of peace even then. I love these Filipinos even more now for having been dependent on them in my hour of desperation. Their compassion, generosity, and strength carried me out of the mountains and will always remain a treasure in my heart.