Oak Bay family fears for friends on Vanuatu

Doctor recently returned from island hit by Cyclone Pam

Dr. Jeff Unger works on Tanna

Dr. Jeff Unger voices concern, just for a brief moment, that he’s being trite.

The challenge is to describe the meld of emotions the physician has felt this week, the feelings he’s navigated with wife Carla and daughters Maryn and Neeve. The Oak Bay family recently returned from working and living in Tanna, one of the most southern islands in Vanuatu, that suffered a direct hit from Cyclone Pam on March 14.

“It’s literally heartbreaking,” Unger said. “It’s a mix of emotions. We’re so thankful to be back here. I wouldn’t ever want to put my children in harm’s way, but there’s the strangeness of that’s just lucky timing for us.”

The family spent seven months in Vanuatu – a country of more than 80 volcanic islands in the South Pacific – while Unger worked as a volunteer physician as part of the Victoria-Vanuatu Physician Project (ViVa) . The Victoria-Vanuatu Physician Project is a small, grassroots, not-for-profit organization that supplies a physician to staff the 40-bed Lenakel Hospital on the island of Tanna. Over its 24 years more than 40 Greater Victoria physicians and their families have made the trip.

“There’s a whole gaggle of kids who live around the hospital … they were acting like locals within months,” he said. “It was such a powerful experience for them, the whole experience will change their lives.”

Information is slowly trickling out, with World Vision New Zealand chartering a flight that brought in some satellite cellphones. Other than a couple of confirmations that friends are OK, a glimpse of nurses in CNN footage provided Unger a few early insights into what the hospital – where Maryn and Neve were so popular with patients they were often afforded the opportunity to cut umbilical cords and name babies – may look like now.

It would have been a difficult transition home anyway for the girls, aged 8 and 10, leaving behind new friends. Now they ask regularly if there’s been word of their friends.

“Now my wife and I are trying to walk this fine balance of being realistic … but not creating anxiety,” he said. “They are worried, but they’re pretty level-headed and they know how fragile life is there.

“They’re already talking about doing a fundraiser at (Christ Church Cathedral) school next week,” he added.

It’s a sentiment the family hopes to see echoed among Canadians in general.

“It’s hard to keep proper perspective. People have tragedies in their life all the time here, but just knowing how little they already had, this exponentially increases the need,” he said.

The residents there still face the challenges of maintaining health and nutrition, and Unger is encouraging others to help to push Canada to send its Disaster Assistance Response Team.

“Many other countries have already responded … sadly the only thing Canada has done so far is offer a travel advisory,” Unger said. He hopes people will write the minister of foreign affairs, minister of national defence and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to have the DART team respond.

Vi-Va is working to provide ongoing aid, but in the meantime they’re urging donations to Canadian Red Cross (redcross.ca) which has the expertise and equipment needed to help residents of the ravaged area.

“Our organization is slowly trying to arrange how we can change our mandate… so we can accept donations for mid to long-term fundraising,” Unger said.

Vi-Va hopes to focus on rebuilding the hospital, staff housing and other health care structures on Tanna. It is the only hospital on the island of roughly 30,000 people. Visit vivaproject.ca for updates on fundraising efforts.

cvanreeuwyk@oakbaynews.com