This Is What It’s Like to Be a Medical Frontliner at the Epicenter of COVID-19
“This is nothing compared to 9/11.”
The deadly plague has killed far more people in America than any other place in the world. As of writing, there are 780,330 confirmed cases with a total of 37,782 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. With the soaring mortality rate, the statistics still don’t include the thousands who died without being tested given the strained medical system in, what already is, a first-world country. We were all not equipped for this, it seems.
New York is the epicenter of the pandemic due to its density. The overcrowded city is a breeding ground for the highly infectious disease. Dead bodies are transported via trucks; churches have become makeshift hospitals; all major events are canceled until June. The city which never sleeps—of Broadway dreams and eccentric characters—is undergoing a hibernation. Amid the lockdown, tensions rise as Americans seek normalcy.
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For Rose, a Filipina health professional in New York, days are long and demanding. She shares, “On most nights, staff in my enclosed unit care for a total of 26 patients afflicted with the virus, each critically ill on respirators [and] on various intravenous medication drips like sedatives, paralytics, antibiotics, blood thinners and pressors—all to aid their very sick bodies to hopefully heal and recover. The sad reality is that quite a number of them fail to do so.” She is just one of the countless, dedicated Pinoy frontliners abroad fighting this war.
She narrates her journey as a health professional at the epicenter of COVID-19 in an exclusive one-on-one.
Wonder: What’s it like being a health professional in the epicenter of the virus?
Rose: Things have been getting hectic at work. Ibang klase na talaga ang nangyayari sa mga ospital (It’s a really different case happening in the hospitals). Almost all patients who are confined are COVID-19 positive. Those on respirators who are critically ill have a very hard time fighting the virus because it’s weakening their lungs and other organs [leading] to failure. They are dying because of this, nakakalungkot masyado (it’s so saddening).
Nowadays, you don’t really know if the person in front of you is well or infected since they can still look so healthy and asymptomatic. We just truly have to adhere to the mandate of social distancing, staying at home and [carrying out] good hygiene practices.
W: What was the crucial point when you realized the gravity of this global pandemic? Is it even comparable to 9/11?
Rose: This is nothing compared to 9/11. The realization of the graveness of this pandemic sunk in when the logistics within my workplace started changing. I work at the in-patient Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU), the surgical recovery room. All elective surgeries were suddenly cancelled; only emergency cases were being done.
Then came the “no visitors” policy. It felt eerie walking through the empty visitors’ garage on the nights that I worked. Another change came when [workers] at our unit not only recovered post-surgery cases but also took in and cared for patients who were critically ill from the different ICUs. The culmination of this pandemic [being] the recovery room, which is now a full COVID positive unit.
W: How do these circumstances affect your mental health?
Rose: I cannot deny that every time I go to work, I have some anxiety and fear of what I will be faced with for my assignment. Donning PPEs is very uncomfortable, especially using the N95 mask underneath the regular one; breathing is somewhat restricted, but it has to be done to be protected. I hear news of healthcare staff—some whom I know—dying despite the protection, and you feel devastated and so defeated in this fight. This virus is so lethal and it spreads so fast, walang pinipili (it chooses no one). I just take it one day at a time and leave myself to God’s care. Honestly, I worry more about my children because of their jobs, which require them to face the public almost every day.
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W: What are good things you’ve been seeing in your work place regardless of these tragic conditions?
Rose: As in any tragic event—calamities, earthquakes, 9/11—we have witnessed how people come together in times of need. Most, if not all of us, do our part to alleviate the burden of those affected. In my workplace, my team and I and our unit managers have been very supportive of each other. From kind words to warm gestures of kindness and consideration, to our active participation at the patient’s bedside to aid and ease our co-staff’s workload has become evident. These already existed before, but more so now.
We have been receiving “acts of gratitude” from “outside” in the form of food, letters and posters of appreciation and gifts. For almost every shift that I am scheduled to work, I go into the staff’s locker room to see the table filled with trays and packages of deliciously cooked meals.
W: Do you have realizations about how we respond to adversity?
Dinadaan namin sa ngiti, tawa and yes, sa sayaw at musika ang pagod namin (We mask how tired we are with smiles, laughs, dances and music). Someone starts playing her fun playlist on her computer and soon you will see one of us dancing to the beat of the music. Oftentimes, shamelessly, it would be me then followed by my co-workers. In quiet moments, you’ll hear one of us singing a song—anything to keep us alive and going through another horrendous night.
We try to exhaust ourselves of our energy, ideas, material necessities and even our spirits. In the end, even if we want to give more of ourselves, we can only do so much. We are only human. Adversity, in my experience and observation, either makes one dwindle to deep depression and/or seek his or her Higher Power for assurance and peace. In my case, I lift myself to His care and protection especially on nights when I have to go to work and, undeniably, have some fear as I face the possibility of getting infected, too. As is the case in past tragedies, this too shall pass.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver