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The group of doctors and nurses traveled to the Philippines at their own expense to help the less fortunate in need of medical care. But before they could begin their work, as they enjoyed the sights on a tourist excursion, their trip took a tragic turn.
The group, including a contingent from the Chicago area, was on its way to a scenic waterfall after whale shark watching when their tour van crashed into a mahogany tree, according to a news release from the local police.
A doctor from Chicago and a nurse from Orland Park were among seven members of the medical mission who died in the crash. One other doctor from Chicago, the wife of the man who died, was seriously injured. Local media reports indicated another couple from the Chicago suburbs also was in the van and seriously injured in the crash.
The driver of the tour van fell asleep, police said, and informed investigators he had slept only one hour the previous night.
Aurora M. Gagni, a nurse from Orland Park, and Nunilo Rubio Sr., an endocrinologist from Chicago, died in the crash, according to friends and family. Rubio’s wife, Elenita, who is also a doctor, was seriously injured and was in critical condition at a hospital.
The trio were among a group of about 100 Filipino-American medical personnel who had traveled to the Philippines for a three-day medical mission, said Nida Blankas-Hernaez, past president of the Philippine Medical Association in Chicago. The mission provides medical care and treatment to underserved populations and those who cannot afford it, Blankas-Hernaez said. Mission participants pay their own way to travel to the Philippines, she said. The medical association, and other similar Filipino groups across the country, raise money and then join forces to pair with Filipino hospitals and governments to provide surgeries, medical, dental and optical care.
“It’s sad, it’s really sad,” said Blankas-Hernaez, who is a pediatrician. “We’re praying for them.”
The tour van crashed in the town of Alegria in Cebu province. The group was traveling to the popular Kawasan Falls before medical mission work was to begin this week, police and family members said. Seven passengers in the van were pronounced dead upon arrival at area hospitals. Three others were listed in serious condition. Photos the police posted online show the crumpled front of the tour van smashed against the tree. The driver of the van survived and was taken into custody.
Rubio was the medical director of endocrinology at Presence Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center at 2222 W. Division St., where he worked from 1972 until 2015.
“He was generous, compassionate and had a real commitment to patients,” spokesman Jim O’Connell said. “He never stopped caring for those in need.”
Rubio recently donated money to the hospital to help expand the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Care. Rubio was a talented lecturer on diabetes, Blankas-Hernaez said. Elenita Rubio is the incoming president of the regional Philippine medical association. The couple came to the Chicago area in 1967 for further medical training and have three children.
Philip Chua, a friend of the couple, said “they’re wonderful people” who regularly dedicated their time to helping others, including volunteer work on medical mission trips to the Philippines.
“He’s very warm and compassionate, soft spoken, low-key,” Chua said. “They’re very active in the medical communities, especially in Chicago.”
Gagni worked as a recovery room nurse. Friends said Gagni loved to help others and was creative with flowers, helping her husband Tito run his floral business. She designed and created arrangements for church events, fundraisers and the wedding of one of her friend’s daughters.
“She was out doing something good and a car crash kills her … you just don’t think of this happening,’’ said the Rev. William Corcoran of St. Elizabeth Seton in Orland Hills, Gagni’s parish.
“Everybody knew her. She was a spitfire, lots of energy, ’’ Corcoran said. “She was very committed to the parish and very much a part of this community.’’
Friend Carminda Aldeza said Gagni loved the mission work.
“She just really enjoyed it. She’s just that type of person,” Aldeza said.
Her husband was supposed to be on the trip with her, but he was handling the flowers for a wedding. He visited the parish Sunday to let them know what happened. “He is just in shock,’’ said St. Elizabeth Seton spokeswoman Claudia Nolan, who saw him that day.
Gagni had a “great, creative eye,’’ said Corcoran, and would often help transform the church during the holidays, such as Easter.
“It would go from Good Friday, dark and empty, and in an hour she would make the sanctuary look like the Garden of Eden,’’ Corcoran said.
Using ribbon, she also crafted elaborate bows to decorate the bottom of large Advent candles at the church. Volunteering was important to her, and she always made time for it.
Blankas-Hernaez said she and Gagni worked together, and “she was like an angel to me. She wants to help all the time and so that’s why she was going on the mission.”
The couple has a son and daughter and recently celebrated the birth of their first grandchild, Nolan said.
“She would always say yes,’’ Nolan said of Gagni’s response to helping out at the church. “And there was always that smile. I will miss that smile.’’
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