Filipino-American nurses are in the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, with many of them contracting and some succumbing to the disease. Amid the serious and constant threat, they hold on to their faith and family.
The Philippine Nurses Association of America Inc. regularly updates in its Facebook page the list of members who died on duty and the number keeps on increasing as Filipino nurses represent the largest population of migrant healthcare workers in the nation which had the most infections in the world as of May 3.
In the US, more than 1.16 million Covid-19 cases and over 67,000 deaths have been reported as of May 3, making it an epicenter of the disease which originated in Wuhan, China last year. This also makes Filipino nurses in the US highly vulnerable to what a nurse described as "one of the worst pandemics of our era".
"Many of our peers and colleagues have been afflicted by the coronavirus and have fallen gravely ill. A great number of our loved ones and significant others are fighting for their lives as a result of the infection from this awful disease," Arlin Fidellaga, an OR nurse educator at Atlantic Health System: Morristown Medical Center, says in Nurses Behind the Masks Series posted on the Facebook page of PNAA.
"Amidst all the chaos, uncertainties, heartaches during these very stressful and trying times, we lean on each other for strength, we look out for each and everyone’s safety, we continue to shower our love for one another," says Fidellaga, a graduate of Cebu Velez College of Nursing.
"We, Filipinos are also very religious people. We believe in the mighty power of offering our needs to our Lord as a family and that they will be answered," Fidellaga says.
Catherine Ceniza Choy, an academician and author of the 2003 book Empire of Care, estimated that there are 150,000 Filipino-American nurses, representing 4 percent of the total in the US. They are also among the biggest senders of cash to the Philippines.
Among them is Marcial Reyes—a 47-year-old ER charge nurse and case manager, who had served in the public affairs staff of Senator Edgardo Angara for more than eight years until June 2005 before migrating to California. Reyes, an active member of the Emergency Nurses Association, graduated from San Beda University in Manila with a degree in Philosophy and Letters in 1996 and a degree in Nursing in 2005. He migrated and became a nurse in the US in 2006, completed Master of Science in Nursing at Walden University in 2011 and attended Ambulatory Health Care Management Course at California State University, Los Angeles-College of Professional and Global Education in 2018.
A father of a five-year-old preschooler, he was working as case manager and nurse in-charge at Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest healthcare facilities in Fontana, when he was diagnosed with Covid-19 on March 13. His condition was so serious he was attached to a ventilator and was in a medically-induced coma for 11 days. He survived and was discharged from the hospital on April 13. While his wife and son were also infected, they did not exhibit the serious symptoms that Reyes had and eventually recovered from the disease.
"I am a nurse and I am usually on the other side of the fence, until I saw myself intubated and hooked to a ventilator or life support. I am now closer to the Lord and now value my faith even more. I believe that more than science, it is divine intervention," Reyes says in an e-mail.
Reyes says he is fortunate to be a part of one of the best healthcare institutions in the US. "I know with Kaiser Permanente, I will get the best care," he says.
When he fell ill and was induced into coma, Reyes was given the best medical care in the same hospital where he serves, as relayed to him by his wife. "Since I was not able to decide for myself, my wife told me that the doctors and the nurses are very accommodating and value the need to include relatives and significant others in formulating my plan of care," he says.
Reyes is thankful to the hospital staff who did not give up and believed that he would survive the dreaded disease. "I and my wife agreed that we should give credit to the amazing doctors, nurses and other members of the health team. I also have come to realize that my doctors and nurses are the just instruments of the Lord. Without His divine intervention, outcome would have been different," he says.
Today, Reyes encourages other Covid-19 patients to stay hopeful. "Covid-19 is not a death sentence. We have seen many patients recover. We have seen success stories. Let us trust the doctors and the nurses and pray that they make the best decision on what route to take," he says.
Reyes says what has worked for him—a cocktail of vitamins and medicines including anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and antiviral retrovir—may not necessarily be the answer for others. "Every patient is different and therefore, treatment may also be different," he says.
Prevention, he says, should remain the priority. He hopes that people will continue to do their share in preventing the spread of the disease so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed by patients. "In the meantime, those who are not infected should follow directions from our national and local leaders. We need to slow down the spread of the virus so hospitals will not be inundated with patients. This will help healthcare workers provide the best care, without spreading themselves too thin and prevent physical and emotional fatigue," he says.
Reyes, who is still weak from the disease, now tries to fully regain his fine motor skills so he can return to the battlefield against the pandemic.
"I am still recovering. I was in the hospital for almost a month and was discharged home unable to walk without a walker. I have suffered muscle atrophy and was very weak. I am undergoing physical therapy now and slowly getting back my strength. I also need to gain back my fine motors. I cannot write the way I used to. I am still recovering. Once I am fully recovered, I will go back to work and continue taking care of patients," he says.
On why he wants to return to the field where he nearly died, he says: "This will not prevent me from doing what I love doing. Nursing is not just a profession for me. It is also a vocation. Let me show to the world that I am a Filipino nurse—‘laging maasahan'," he says.
"Filipino professionals are resilient. We easily adjust and we never give up. Filipino-American doctors and nurses value teamwork and the need to involve relatives and significant other with how care is provided. Involving family and significant other can result in better patient outcomes. We draw strength and inspiration from our families and our faith. This helps us cope with the stress of taking care of patients with Covid-19," he says.
"We will do our job. We will work to save lives and keep our patients safe. We all want this pandemic to end. We know our efforts and sacrifices will never go unnoticed. We will serve and care for our patients, with or without Covid-19," says Reyes.