EL CERRITO -- It was pretty much like any other day for Dr. Gillian Kuehner. Get up, go to work, treat patients, then go home.
Except, for the past three weeks, Kuehner wasn't at Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center where for 15 years she has served as a general surgeon. She was in the Philippines, working to ease the suffering of those displaced by last month's massive typhoon.
"We have all these things we take for granted in the United States," said Kuehner, who returned to her El Cerrito home just this week.
Kuehner, who specializes in breast cancer treatment, answered a call for volunteers from Relief International, a nonprofit international aid agency based in the United States. Kaiser had put out the call to its employees shortly after Typhoon Haiyan -- known in the Philippines as Yolanda -- slammed into the country's central Visayas region, nearly destroying the provincial capital city of Tacloban, displacing thousands and killing at least 6,000 people.
It was in the ruins of Tacloban that Kuehner and 26 other physicians -- most of whom were from Kaiser hospitals in Northern California -- made their home for three weeks.
After being accepted by Relief International, Kuehner flew to Cebu City the day after Thanksgiving with one duffel bag full of clothes and toiletries, and another filled with medical supplies. Kuehner had to wait several days before her team was able to secure another plane to take them to the damaged Tacloban airport, she said. Once there, they relieved another team of Relief International physicians and were assigned to a partially restored hospital in Carigara, a city about an hour and a half from Tacloban, Kuehner said.
Additionally, the team would go out into the barangays, or neighborhoods, of Tacloban and set up mobile clinics to extend the reach of medicine beyond the hospitals.
"People were very helpful," Kuehner said of the local populace that hurried to make sure the team had a shaded place to work and home-cooked Filipino meals.
Kuehner and her team saw about 3,000 patients during those three weeks. Most of the wounds she treated were upper respiratory infections, abscesses and foot lacerations, she said. Most of the traumatic injuries had been dealt with in the days following the disaster.
"People didn't really have shoes. Many people were in flip-flops," Kuehner said, noting the danger of walking through the rubble.
Because of the damage to the communications infrastructure in that part of the Philippines, Kuehner had trouble updating her husband, Norman Bookstein, about her progress in the Philippines. The two were reunited Tuesday when Kuehner returned after a 16-hour flight.
Kuehner said she was glad to be home, and happy that she not only made a difference -- several thank-you notes she brought back attest to that -- but that the Philippines was on track to rebuild. Her team returned the hospital in Carigara to its original staff, who had received time off to deal with the cleanup.
"There's this sense of optimism," Kuehner said.
Contact Lanz Christian Bañes at 707-553-6833. Follow him at Twitter.com/LanzCBanes.