Typhoon Haiyan: Death still stalks the children

TACLOBAN, Philippines - Ms Sylvia Chen had already lost one child. She was not about to lose another.

Last month, the music teacher from Singapore came here to look after a girl who had been under her care since 2011.

Joyce Lequin, nine, had urinary tract infection, measles and pneumonia. Her mother took her to a public hospital, where the doctors suspected she also had dengue but could not be certain.

That was when Ms Chen moved the girl to a private hospital.

It was not the first time that someone from Tacloban had reached out to Ms Chen. She has been visiting the city regularly since 2008 as part of a church outreach programme.

Soon after Super Typhoon Haiyan laid waste to Tacloban and most of the central Philippines on Nov 8 last year, another girl Ms Chen had been caring for, Jolina Verona, fell ill with a stomach infection and began vomiting worms. After Ms Chen procured antibiotics, Jolina recovered.

But in mid-April, the 13-year-old developed a high fever. Ms Chen wanted to fly to Tacloban, but Jolina's mother assured her that the girl was getting better. Jolina died of pneumonia on April 17.

"When I reached her a few days later, her mum kept saying, 'She was asking for you, she was asking for you'. I was really heartbroken. I was crying and crying," Ms Chen told The Straits Times.

Joyce and Jolina lived in the same village in San Jose district.

Ms Chen was especially fond of Jolina.

When they first met in 2011, the girl had not showered for months, and lice were creeping out of her hair.

"There was this instinct in me that told me I wanted to help her," Ms Chen recalled.

Jolina had a traumatic childhood. Her father had raped her since she was five. This lasted for about four years until her mother found out about it and reported him to the police. He was jailed.

When Jolina was 11, her mother abandoned her and her two sisters. That was when Jolina and Ms Chen crossed paths.

Ms Chen got the girls' neighbour to look after them and paid for their expenses.

She would visit them once every three months and stay for up to nine days, teaching and playing games with them. Their mother returned some time last year.

It is difficult to imagine Ms Chen doing what she does. The 31-year-old has a wiry frame and the soft, soothing voice of a counsellor. She would barely register in a boisterous crowd, but has the steely resolve of a missionary.

"Many people think it's crazy. But for me, I really enjoy coming here and looking at the kids. When I see them, be with them, it brings me a lot of joy. That is really what motivates me," she said.

When The Straits Times caught up with her last week, Ms Chen had been caring for Joyce for 10 days.

The girl's parents were busy, the mother nursing a baby inside a tent that her family had lived in since November and the father caring for her two sisters, who had measles, at another hospital.

Ms Chen knows Filipinos want to give their children the best, but this comes with a heavy price.

"In these past two weeks, I learnt a lot about Filipino culture... I think many parents... they only send (their children) to hospital at the very last minute because they are so afraid that they cannot pay the bills," she said.

She has come to realise that disease does not always kill children. Poverty does. "It's really heartbreaking," she said.

A day after The Straits Times spoke to Ms Chen, Joyce's fever broke. The worst was over, Ms Chen said.


This article was published on May 8 in The Straits Times.

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