Hurrying to help

By CATHY BUSSEWITZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma-based nurse Betty Woods was on a seashore near Roxas City in the Philippines one December day when she noticed two little boys nearby.

She was in the midst of a two-week trip volunteering to help victims of Typhoon Haiyan, and with her fellow volunteers had been treating several hundred patients a day, working outdoors in 95-degree heat and 95 percent humidity.

Nurse Betty Woods of Sonoma checks a child in the Philippines in the aftermath of the devastating November typhoon. (National Nurses United)

Nurse Betty Woods of Sonoma checks a child in the Philippines in the aftermath of the devastating November typhoon. (National Nurses United)

Taking a break, she was collecting seashells on the beach when the boys approached, holding two giant conches, each the size of a basketball.

“I had just been out there taking a breather from the routine, because it was very grueling,” Woods said. “And here these two kids come out of this very poor housing, and they bring me these two conch shells — beautiful, big shells they had gotten on the beach — and they gave them to me.”

“It was extremely touching to have that happen, because it’s the people that you least expect anything from, because they have so little to start with,” Woods said.

Woods, 71, was volunteering as a part of National Nurses United’s RN Response Network. The group has sent more than two dozen nurses from around the country since November to the Philippines to help administer aid as the nation recovers from the disaster.

“We were strangers when we started, but everybody worked like we had worked our whole lives together,” Woods said.

The patients Woods treated suffered from bronchitis and respiratory ailments caused by debris, and from cuts and infections sustained as they tried to rebuild their homes. She also helped children and adults deal with anxiety and insomnia brought on by the disaster.

Serving as a nurse for a half-century, Woods began her career in intensive care. Then she spent 18 years as a family nurse practitioner on the HIV consultation team at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, and then 12 years at the California Nurses Association as a labor representative.

Now, in “retirement,” Woods volunteers as a nurse on Mondays at the Jewish Community Free Clinic in Rohnert Park and on Wednesdays building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

“I hate the word ‘retire,’ ” Woods said. “I say, ‘I don’t work for money anymore.'”

Her trip to the Philippines was not her first time pitching in after a major tragedy. Woods has traveled to several disaster zones with RN Response Network, including a trip to provide aid in Haiti after its major earthquake in 2010.

Witnessing the amazing ability of people to recover from extreme tragedy put things in perspective when Woods returned to the U.S.

“People here seem to get down and anxious and depressed about relatively simple things, in retrospect,” Woods said. “But there, really horrible things happen, and they’re able to rise above it.”

For Woods, volunteering in the Philippines and in other disaster zones has been an adventure and a privilege, she said. While other volunteer nurses have to arrange vacation time from work, she can get up and go whenever there’s a need.

“People had lost limbs, or sometimes two limbs,” Woods said of the earthquake victims in Haiti. “They lost their families, they lost everything. And yet they had this resilience and spirit about them that is just something that you don’t see here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.