Exploring the Dark Side of Paradise, An American Couple Takes Up Misery's Gauntlet

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

In many ways, the Philippine island where Tom and Diane Palmeri live is nothing short of paradise: A patch of deep green in the Mindanao Sea, Camiguin is dominated by a volcano that rises above a thick forest of coconut palms. Hot springs bubble up near the barrio of Yumbing, and a 160-foot waterfall tumbles into a glassy pool near Pandan. In the lowlands near the shore, water buffalo stand in rice paddies and bougainvillea blooms in front of neat houses made of coconut wood. By day the heat lies heavy over Camiguin, but the Technicolor sundown brings relief; a breeze wafts in from the sea, and lightning flashes from clouds that mass above the darkening water.

Like any earthly paradise, however, this one is flawed, and no one knows its dark side better than the Palmeris—he an ex-Jesuit and she a public-health nurse. For 14 years these idiosyncratic American philanthropists have been waging a private battle against the human misery that is endemic to this island of 60,000, where money is scarce, the closest major hospital is a four-hour boat ride away, and a dusty telegraph office provides the only means of communicating with the rest of the world. Each year tuberculosis, polio and malnutrition strike hundreds of children, and dozens of babies are born with deformities. Eye diseases often go untreated, and blindness is all too common. For every islander whom the Palmeris are able to help, there are six more they cannot reach. As Tom puts it, "It's a goddamn bottomless pit."

It is sundown on a heat-soaked Thursday, and Tom and Diane are sitting at a table on their lawn, drinking rum and watching a neighbor trawling for milk-fish. From the house—an airy Robinson Crusoe affair with thatched walls—come the mingled voices of their brood, which includes toddlers Snooky and Mimi, foster children who were abandoned by their Filipino mothers; Marie, 15, Chris, 15 (both adopted in Vietnam), John Joseph (J.J.), 14, Monica, 13, and Edmund, 3 (all adopted in the Philippines), and Erlinda, 10. (Their eldest, Paul, 17, who, like Erlinda, is the Palmeris' natural child, is at school in Greensboro, N.C.) Three helpers are busy getting dinner, and the smell of roasting chicken wafts downwind along with the shouts and laughter. There is laughter from the Philippine fisherman as well—a prolonged, demented cackle that echoes over the water. "He's imitating me," says Tom. "He does that when the moon is full."

For all of their dedication, Tom, 50, and Diane, 44, seem more like gleeful cultural dropouts than crusaders in mid-battle; they laugh easily, listen to loud jazz and foxtrot on the patio after dinner. Diane, who grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, keeps her long hair clipped up and favors thongs and roomy shorts. Tom, a Brooklynite who taught philosophy during his 10 years as a seminarian, is a soft touch and a master of mordant humor. Fiercely independent and loath to take orders, he is happy to be working outside the world of pin-striped relief organizations that spend more on advertising than on vaccines. In fact, both Tom and Diane resemble '60s-era activists who have wandered into a time warp. To these two, Sisyphean tasks are irresistible; they relish hopeless cases and unclimbable mountains. Others might see them as heroes, but the Palmeris regard themselves simply as professionals in the business of salvaging lives.

On Camiguin and in neighboring Mindanao, the two have focused their efforts on children. Supported by about $90,000 a year in contributions from friends, relatives, churches and the occasional foundation, they run a free clinic, feeding program and preschool for about 200 kids in the toughest barrios of Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao's capital. They also provide health care for more than 300 handicapped children and visually-impaired adults on Camiguin and distribute supplies to 300 students in eight of the island's 10 schools. This year they will launch their most ambitious project—an elementary-level boarding school in Camiguin that they hope will become a kind of Foxfire in the Philippines, complete with mountaintop setting and organic gardening.

Idle moments are rare indeed; although a staff of five runs the program in Cagayan, the Palmeris handle the full load on Camiguin. Seven o'clock on Friday morning finds the household in a cheerful state of disarray. Erlinda, J.J., Chris and Marie, who attend the local Catholic school, are scrambling for books and backpacks. Monica is recovering from her ninth operation to correct a cleft palate and harelip, and she will stay at home with the younger children. Since the public-school students whom the Palmeris sponsor are due to receive supplies, Tom and Diane are adding several stops to their six-hour trip around the island; while she looks through a Tupperware container full of note cards on her patients, he hauls boxes into their open truck.

At tiny Paaralang Elementary, just down the road, the weedy playground is deserted, the aging building silent. Stepping inside one of the six classrooms, Diane speaks quickly to a smiling teacher who explains that the kids simply failed to show up. Dismayed, Diane holds a quick conference with Tom. "The kids and teachers constantly find excuses for not holding school," she says. "It's treated as a drop-in center." Says Tom, setting a box on the floor: "It's child-power." Producing a list of names, Diane checks it against the bundles of supplies that Erlinda helped prepare the night before: crayons, notebooks, facecloths, scissors, combs, toothbrushes—"Things people up in the hills never heard of," says Tom.

Two nearly deserted schools later, Diane begins the hike to a tiny house where she has three patients. Joey Lagunda, 7, was 4 months old when a kerosene lamp fell on his crib. Severely burned on the right side of his body, he developed masses of scar tissue that prevented him from closing his mouth or moving his right arm. Joey's 4-year-old cousin, Joseph Uayan, was born with a double harelip and cleft palate; so was his sister, 14-month-old Mary Grace.

Holding the shy Mary Grace, her mother, Lorita Uayan, strolls out into the yard. Diane, who hasn't seen her for weeks, notes that Lorita, 35 and the mother of seven, looks distinctly pregnant. "She's having another baby," she says unhappily. "Do you know anyone who isn't?" asks Tom.

Lorita leads the way inside the house, where eight children, three married couples and a widowed grandmother are quartered. Diane asks for Joey, and Lorita's sister-in-law summons him from the sleeping room. In January, the Palmeris sent him to the hospital in Cebu, where a surgeon performed skin grafts that enabled him to move his arm and close his mouth. He can manage a smile now, and he is pleased to demonstrate a new skill-placing a rock in a slingshot and letting it fly. Diane is happy with Joey's progress. "When we first saw him, he was just a little guy, and he was so shy that he would just scream and scream," she says. His face and arm are still covered with ropy scars, and his right ear is completely gone. Holding his wrist gently, she moves the right hand back and forth. "This is a little tight," she says. "He'll need another operation when he's about 15."

Joseph is nowhere to be found, but Diane examines Mary Grace, whom she recently sent for surgery to correct one side of the double harelip. Her gums are alarmingly pale; she is anemic and will have to be treated with vitamins before the next round of surgery. Diane takes a bottle from her doctor's bag and gives it to Lorita, along with careful instructions.

After another bone-jarring ride, Diane looks in on Alberto Hilot, a stoic 14-year-old who has had tuberculosis for 10 years. His spine is bent into a Z, and a corrective operation that the Palmeris arranged in April left him with a back wound that has yet to heal. Diane cleans the incision and checks his brace, which must be adjusted as he grows. She then consults with his mother and leaves a supply of tuberculosis medication and antibiotics. Later she says, "The last bottles hadn't even been opened. I'm not sure she's giving him anything at all."

After seeing one more patient—a blind woman who was raped and impregnated when she was a teenager—Diane decides to make a final stop. Last winter, she sent Annaliza Achan, a 3-year-old tuberculosis patient, to Cebu, where doctors recommended that she be fitted with a brace. Diane ordered a custom-fitted device from a brace-maker in Mindanao, and she wants to check the fit. Stepping inside an isolated hut perched high on the side of the mountain, she looks at Annaliza, who has not been wearing her brace. The fit is poor, and she cries when Diane tries it out on her. None of the bottles of medicine that Diane brought on her last visit have been opened. "If this curvature isn't corrected, she could become paralyzed, become incontinent, lose sensation in her leg—or nothing could happen," says Diane. "Treating this kid is just beyond her family, and they try to ignore the problem."

By 2 P.M., her rounds are finished. The heat is relentless, and lunch is overdue. As she walks back to the truck, Tom comes to meet her. "I've got the 15-year-old back here, and I'm feeding him our lunch," he tells her. "He says his father beats him, and he wants to come live with us." Diane doesn't look surprised. As she moves toward the ragged boy, the sweaty Tom reaches into the back of the truck and grabs a handful of ice from the cooler. "I hate making rounds like this without a pitcher of martinis," he says, pushing back his straw hat.

When Diane Gronstal was a teenager, she wanted nothing more than to rescue orphans. The oldest of five children, she began her training as a candy-striper in Council Bluffs, where her father was a banker and her mother a housewife. It was a missionary priest from their parish who inspired Diane to work overseas: "He was in Africa, and in his newsletters he talked about building hospitals and churches and schools," she says. "By the time I was halfway through high school, I'd decided I was going to be a nurse and that I wanted to go to work with him."

Midway through her senior year at the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn., Diane began thinking about volunteering in Vietnam. "It was 1967, and the beginning of the antiwar movement," she says. "I figured it was a place not very many nurses would want to go, and I knew the local people would be neglected." By the summer of 1968, she was working for Project Concern in a tiny field hospital at DamPao, in the central highlands.

In the cast at DamPao was 29-year-old Tom Palmeri, who was working as the hospital administrator. A barber's son who had joined the Jesuits at 17, he had spent six years in the Philippines during his stint as a seminarian. In 1966—after deciding that "there were certain things about the order that I no longer believed in"—he had asked to be released from his vows. But his sense of mission had remained intact, and he had seized the chance to go to Vietnam.

Living and working in the bush, the two conducted a speedy courtship. A year after meeting in DamPao, Tom and Diane were married in Council Bluffs. Although they settled briefly near Bryn Mawr, Pa., where Tom worked on a doctorate in philosophy and Diane took a job as a public-health nurse, they knew their calling was in Southeast Asia. In 1973 they found their opening. Another Project Concern veteran was launching an effort to help starving and abandoned babies in Saigon, and they volunteered to oversee the program.

Their tour of duty ended in April 1975, when they flew from Saigon to Manila on one of Pan Am's last commercial flights from Vietnam. They soon saw that the Philippines, where there was enormous poverty and a few dollars would go a long way, was a place where they could make a difference. While Tom taught philosophy at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro, Diane began handing out sandwiches to malnourished kids in their neighborhood, where desperately poor families lived beside the very rich. Before long she was running a daily feeding program for 100 children, conducting free medical clinics and giving lectures on hygiene and nutrition.

These days, the Palmeris are conducting business on a different scale, but the struggle continues. As experienced as they are, there are still moments when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional pressures of their work. Tom would rather immerse himself in plans for their school (which has been under construction since January) than accompany Diane on home visits. "The only way I can deal with the pathos is to shut it out," he says. "I'm more a sucker than Diane is; I have to put a physical distance between myself and the misery. People live in absolutely horrible situations here, and you can modify that to a very limited extent."

Friday's work is done, and Tom and Diane are sitting by the sea, where another extravagant sunset is playing itself out. Erlinda is wading with Snooky in the shallow water, and Marie (who was born without a left arm and with only part of a right one) is demonstrating her bike-riding skills on the grassy slope behind them. Edmund is sitting under the table, talking softly, and the rest of the brood is busy with books or crayons or homework.

The battered teenager who ate their lunch today is still up on the mountain. It seems that he has a fondness for tuba, the local palm wine, and that his father abuses him after his binges. The boy suffers from convulsions as well, but Diane still holds out hope. "He's way behind in school," she says. "If we can get the convulsions under control, and find some way to keep him in class..."

"You never give up," says Tom, smiling. As if on cue, the crazed fisherman drifts into sight and begins hooting like a loon once more.

From Our Partners