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Orem pediatrician 'happy' to help cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu

OREM — "It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you are where God wants you to be at any given moment," said Dr. Matthew Cornish.

"This was one of those times."

The pediatrician and partner at Utah Valley Pediatrics’ Timpanogos office in Orem had just returned from 10 days of voluntary medical service in the recently devastated nation of Vanuatu, a tightly knit group of 83 Pacific islands. Vanuatu is still reeling from the impact of Tropical Cyclone Pam, one of the most vicious Category 5 storms to ever make landfall.

It was a combination of personal connection and medical utility that inspired him to contact the Pacific Area presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about volunteer work, Cornish said. He recently had visited the islands with his wife, who served a mission there years ago, and had formed a personal relationship with the country and its people.

When Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu on March 14, Cornish said, he called the area presidency almost immediately.

"It was one of those times where I was the right person in the right place in the right time, and happy to be so," he said.

Cornish's offer was relayed to a senior missionary couple in Vanuatu, who soon summoned the doctor and his team. Along with nurses Cheryl Wynkoop and Whitney Davidson, Cornish spent just three days obtaining the necessary documents, supplies and vaccinations before boarding a plane on March 28.

"It was very quick … but somehow everything fell into place," said Wynkoop, Cornish's nurse at Utah Valley Pediatrics. "That was the first of many miracles."

Although Cornish's team was not officially permitted to volunteer on behalf of the church, "we were definitely considered the LDS medical team," he said. Locals saw Cornish's team as part of a larger disaster relief response by the LDS Church — a response widely praised for its singular speed and efficiency.

"After the storm, there was immediate church attention," said Mason Sutton, who recently served as a missionary in the Vanuatu Port Vila Mission. "They were one of the first planes to touch down."

Church members volunteered nonstop for nearly three weeks after the cyclone, Sutton said, either cleaning up debris, rebuilding homes, or sorting and distributing donated food. Weekly boats and planes from LDS Humanitarian Services brought in 2,000 boxes full of Vanuatuan diet staples, along with 5,000 personal hygiene kits, 3,000 liters of clean drinking water, 1,500 tents, and supplies for cleanup and construction.

Church officials also helped drum up a bit of medical support, including Cornish and his crew. With the new addition of four young missionaries, who would serve as translators, navigators and survival guides, the LDS medical team visited Vanuatu's Ministry of Health for an assignment.

Cornish's team was given responsibility for all medical needs on Nguna and Emao, two islands that had yet to receive any medical care following Cyclone Pam. Together, the two islands are home to about 4,500 villagers.

"We didn’t even have time to drop our luggage off," Wynkoop said of the team's arrival on the first island they visited, Nguna. "We started seeing patients the minute our boat hit this shore."

Most medical conditions that the team treated were not sustained during the cyclone, the nurse said. Rather, they tended primarily to injuries and illnesses developed in its aftermath, including exposure-borne colds and bouts of pneumonia, lacerations from cleanup efforts, muscle soreness from the exertion of rebuilding an island.

Additionally, Cornish was able to see patients with chronic illnesses like epilepsy and diabetes — even though it meant making house calls.

All told, the medical team saw about 330 patients.

"One way or another, we felt like we saw every single person who needed to be seen on those islands before we left," Wynkoop said.

And, although Wynkoop and her colleagues have returned, the LDS Church's disaster response continues.

"As followers of Jesus Christ, we are absolutely committed to walk alongside our brothers and sisters in Vanuatu as they grieve, recover, and rebuild," said Elder Kevin W. Pearson, the church’s Pacific Area president. "We are here for the long haul."

Sutton encouraged concerned church members to consider donating money or supplies.

"Donating to … LDS Philanthropies will especially help, because we know it will get there," the returned missionary said.

Slowly but surely, he promised, Vanuatu will get there, too.


Twitter: allisonoctober