CULTURE

The life of a health worker amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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Most frontline health care workers fighting the pandemic are either fending off for themselves or improvising only to ensure the health and safety of each Filipino they serve. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Since the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines, the figures have increased at a rapid rate. Today, the Department of Health reports breaking new hundredth marks of COVID-19 cases in a matter of days. As a large-scale attempt to prevent further spread of the virus, an enhanced community quarantine was implemented in Luzon, but not without social implications. The region-wide quarantine has rendered great effects to the economic, finance, tourism, and education sectors. Mass transportation has also been suspended, leaving most Filipinos with no other choice but walk from their homes to work. On top of this, shortcomings of our healthcare system have quickly come to light amid the pandemic.

With all of this, most frontline health care workers fighting the pandemic are either fending off for themselves or improvising only to ensure the health and safety of each Filipino they serve. While most of us are just trying to keep ourselves entertained at the comfort of our homes and practicing social distancing to avoid getting infected with COVID-19, health care workers are still serving in the front lines of the battle against the novel coronavirus. Here are some stories behind our unsung heroes — doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel willing to risk their lives for the Filipino people.

Public health as a social responsibility

An intern at the Philippine General Hospital, John Ruben Valeza continued to work as a frontline health care worker as he sees public health as an important concern. “I know trained health personnel are much needed in such a crisis,” Valeza says. His internship has already trained him to the point that his duty has become a routine, but he shares that they had to adapt to various changes in schedules and protocols.

Before, Valeza and his colleagues had 24-hour or even 36-hour duties in the frontlines. However, they soon shifted to a “skeletal duty,” which reduced their working hours to 8-hour shifts in order to minimize the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. They have also strategized ways to serve the frontlines such as identifying concrete area assignments manned by health workers to minimize cross-contamination as most personnel also come in contact with patients coming from the emergency unit or ICU.

“It feels like having a dual responsibility of ensuring that we prevent further transmission of the virus,” Valeza shared when asked what it feels like to be in the frontlines against COVID-19. Since health workers have to screen and treat patients accordingly, they also have the additional responsibility of protecting themselves from contracting the disease as it would take a toll on the depleting manpower of the hospital.

"We are all heroes in our own ways, as we all do our part in keeping our community safe and healthy and motivating our front liners during this crisis," says John Ruben Valeza, an intern at the Philippine General Hospital. Photo from RUBEN VALEZA

Valeza shares that working in the frontlines have been tougher than the usual, which he aptly calls “burnout.” Sleep deprivation and skipping meals have become part and parcel of working in the frontlines, as doctors are now working 24/7 in the emergency unit. There has also been a decrease in manpower per shift due to the skeletal duty schedule, which means that one personnel would oversee tasks originally intended to be covered by several people before the pandemic.

Lack of equipment has also prevented frontline health care workers from working efficiently. The inadequate supply of face masks, gloves, sterile gowns, head caps, shoe covers, and disinfectants has prompted them to launch a donation drive for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in order for them to handle patients and protect themselves at the same time.

A personal calling to serve

Ralph Anthony Valderrama also understands the risks of fighting in the front lines but he stands by his oath as an ambulance nurse in the Pasig Emergency Unit. “Whether I like it or not, this is my calling and I have to fulfill this,” Valderrama says.

“Handling patients is tough, but right now with this pandemic, our work doubled, or even tripled,” Valderrama shares as he describes how working in a government hospital has been tougher due to the overwhelming influx of patients and maximum-capacity hospitals. Aside from the increasing number of patients and the regular medical and trauma patients that they cater to, they have also been accommodating anxious patients who just want to be tested. “Who can blame them? They just want assurance that they don’t have the virus, and their whole family will be safe,” Valderrama says despite the exhausting nature of their work these days.

Similarly, Valderrama and his colleagues are also suffering from the lack of PPEs. “Some of my colleagues from different hospitals do not have things to protect themselves against the virus, so they source out in doing their own PPE just to be safe from the virus,” Valderrama says. He also finds it difficult to move around while wearing the PPE, and make sure to not damage their equipment in order to avoid passing on the disease to another patient or family member.

“We are handling patients every single day, and we don’t know if our patient is telling the truth regarding our screening questions,” Valderrama shares as he explains the challenges when engaging with patients, as they are probably interacting with patients who already have the virus.

“Whether I like it or not, this is my calling and I have to fulfill this,” ambulance nurse Ralph Anthony Valderrama shares. Photo from RA VALDERAMA

Kristoffer Nemis shares similar sentiments. As the chief of nursing service department of the San Antonio Medical Center of Lipa, Inc., he feels that serving at the frontlines during this time is his “calling” as a registered nurse. “It is a calling for me to sustain the pledge, and maintain our responsibilities of giving safe and quality health care to the community, as well as in the clinical setting,” he says.

Nemis also feels that the work conditions have become much more stressful and uneasy, despite wearing PPEs. “Sometimes, I don’t feel that I am protected even when wearing complete PPE. It is very difficult for us as there are patients who don’t disclose their travel history or exposure. It is hard to convince them to stay at home. They don’t understand, so we are also at risk,” he shares.

Thankfully, Nemis enjoys various benefits such as free accommodation, transport service, and extra days off and their hospital management is responsive in giving medical support, compensation, treatment, and hospitalization.

While most people see health care workers in the front lines as “heroes,” all three interviewed front liners say they are not the only heroes in this battle that should be acknowledged.

“Even our sanitation team, our security guards are heroes, too, and let us not forget about them. Even a person who is not at the front line can be a hero by simply staying at home, preventing the spread of the virus,” Valderrama shares.

Valeza echoes the sentiment: “We are all heroes in our own ways, as we all do our part in keeping our community safe and healthy and motivating our front liners during this crisis.”

“True heroes do not have to be famous. Anyone who can save lives is a hero,” Nemis also says.

Despite various setbacks such as lack of equipment and longer-than-regular ships, Valderrama and Valeza are both positive that along with everyone’s cooperation, frontline health workers can make it through these trying times.

“Despite being underappreciated, undercompensated, and overly worked, we still continue to do our jobs at our best effort. I am proud that I am a healthcare professional, and seeing all our medical professionals work selflessly in this time of crisis, despite the challenges of lacking PPE and transportation, makes me even prouder that I am one of them,” Valderrama says.

“It is a calling for me to sustain the pledge, and maintain our responsibilities of giving safe and quality health care to the community,” explains Kristoffer Nemis, chief of the nursing service department of the San Antonio Medical Center of Lipa, Inc. Photo from TOFFER NEMIS