Bring him home: a medical student's journey around the world

A Filipino medical student chronicles on Twitter a unique medical repatriation mission in the middle of the Covid-19 health crisis

Like most Filipinos, Rafa Abaya was expecting he would not set foot onto a plane for months due to the health crisis. He would have been surprised if was able to get out of Metro Manila. If someone told him a few weeks ago that he would travel halfway across the world, he would have never believed it. But life can be serendipitous at times, with all the pieces falling into place.

“Spent the last 10 days travelling across the world to bring an OFW home,” writes Rafa, the first tweet in a hilarious thread that chronicles a unique adventure. It is filled with PPE-covered flight attendants, empty tourist attractions, and the spirit of bayanihan. What is not to love?

A third-year student at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM), Rafa follows in the footsteps of his parents. Beyond their respective medical careers, his parents engage in repatriation missions, which means helping stranded overseas Filipinos come back home. With most flights grounded and travel severely restricted, Rafa had the opportunity to join his mother in a repatriation mission that would bring him all the way to Mexico City, one of the most culturally enriching cities in the world. It also happens to be a Covid-19 hotspot.

Filled with excitement and trepidation, he knew it would be a trip he would be talking about for years to come. After a relatively smooth journey to Mexico City, Rafa and his mother met their patient. He had suffered a stroke two months ago and had since been confined to a hotel room, waiting for a medical escort to bring him home.

Passengers practicing social distancing to enter NAIA.
Rafa Abaya stopped over in Incheon International Airport in Seoul on his way to Mexico City.

“He was happy to see us,” Rafa shares with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “He told us that his agent kept saying he was leaving this week or in a few days, again and again. After two months it had gotten to the point where he stopped believing his agent until he finally saw us. At least he talked to his wife every day on Facebook, but he was so sick of the hotel food.”

Due to the sporadic schedule of flights, Rafa and his mother had to wait three days before leaving the country on a flight scheduled to go to Los Angeles. They had never been to Mexico City before so they figured that as long as they made sure they wore masks and were careful, they might as well enjoy themselves a bit.

Servers at a taco stand in Mexico City wearing face masks.

“It was my mother’s dream to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe,” says Rafa. “We rented a car and when we got there we saw that the plaza was practically empty. We sent photos to our family and they couldn’t believe it. It is usually very, very full of tourists and locals. It was so surreal to be there when it was empty, and it makes for the ideal travel photos.”

Rafa Abaya in the empty plaza in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

On the journey back home, the whole group was suddenly faced with obstacles. Flight after flight was cancelled. First their flight to Los Angeles. After they booked new flights and landed in Tokyo, their flight to Manila was cancelled as well.

Rafa Abaya in Narita International Airport in Tokyo.

Spending hours at the airport, looking for a comfortable enough place for the patient to rest, they found out they would be staying in Japan for at least a couple of days. Most people would love a trip to Japan, but maybe not under these circumstances. Although the small group Rafa was part of was able to pay for hotel accommodations, he overheard other Filipinos unable to get the bank transfer they needed because it was a Saturday. On the way out he saw the temporary shelters at the Tokyo airport, a glimpse into the struggles of OFWs trying to get back home.

Several days later, after a bunch of paperwork issues regarding insurance and immigration forms that Rafa writes about in his thread, they were on a flight to Cebu.

“I was talking to the flight attendants and learned that they were very much willing to fly, even in their PPEs,” says Rafa. “But it is hard. They have to adjust to whatever the regulations are in the country they land in. One of the pilots told us that in a repatriation journey to Barbados, the crew had to stay on the plane for three days because of some rules there.”

It was on that flight that Rafa had the idea to write the whole journey as a Twitter thread. He told the flight attendants and they encouraged him, saying that people needed to read good news.

Finally, they land on Philippine soil. The patient jokingly asks if he really needs to get on the flight to Manila since he is based in Bohol. Insurance says he needs to go to a hospital in Manila. After 10 days away for Rafa and his mom, and two months away for the patient, authentic Filipino caldereta was exactly what they need.

The night before they boarded the local flight to Manila, Rafa asked that nobody disturb him as he had to take an exam. Yes, along with the whole journey, he still had an online exam waiting for him.

“Before we even left, I already told my parents I had two exams when I got back,” says Rafa. “Suddenly, I found myself busy worrying about the patient, coordinating logistics, with a split-screen on my phone as I was reading through notes. But I realized that this was what it would be like for the next two years at the hospital, handling patients and exams.”

Back in Manila, Rafa began drafting a series of tweets about his experience, hoping to shed light on the experience of OFWs.

“The entire trip we were always second-guessing what our next move would be. We were practically in the same position as the patient a month ago, people saying we were going home but nothing was guaranteed,” he says. “The flights might get cancelled. We had to wait for our tests. There was so much uncertainty.”

“These are our fellow Filipinos who not only bring so much pride to our country but also add so much to our economy,” adds Rafa. “They are scared because there is so much uncertainty. Something as simple as coming home is such a struggle for so many of them. And then on the other end, they don’t know if they can go back, or if there is a job for them if they go back.”

“The private industries need to be met halfway by the public sectors. But there is hope. There are good people,” Rafa tells us. “Embassies helped us left and right. OWWA was very helpful. Other Filipinos were helpful, carrying the patient to the wheelchair, something as small as that even though they didn’t have to. The whole spirit of bayanihan is still here.”