When Deo Onda became a volunteer driver for stranded medical workers and patients a week into ECQ, he realized he needed to do more than bring them to the hospitals or drive them to their homes. He needed to be a listener, a confidante. Absorber to the shock and the exhaustion of his passengers’ daily realities—stuff they would rather keep from their families who are already concerned about them.
While in transit, many of Onda’s passengers poured out their woes and complaints, anxieties and frustrations. Usually, all it took was for him to ask a casual ‘kamusta.’
One of the trips he can’t forget was with a nurse he picked up from a hospital. She looked troubled, so he asked what was wrong. She was at wit’s end. “Hindi nya daw alam ang gagawin nya kasi pagod na pagod sya sa trabaho, then she received a text from her landlady na hindi na sya makakauwi sa bahay. Sinabi daw sa kanya na ipa-pack na ang gamit nya. Hindi na daw siya pwedeng bumalik sa apartment kasi natatakot silang mahawa,” Onda recalls. “Sabi nya, ‘feeling ko nga nandidiri na sa akin lahat.’”
He also remembers the time when many doctors were dying of Covid. One healthcare worker told him that every time she leaves home for work, she says goodbye to her family as if it’s her last time she will see them. There was always a reason to worry. “What if may isang pasyente na hindi nagsabi ng totoong details nya. Then she got infected, then hindi na nakauwi. Madami kasing ganoon ang kaso. They got in healthy, they got exposed to the virus, and then they just went downhill. Tapos hindi na nila nakikita ng pamilya nila [sa huling sandali ng buhay nila],” says Onda, recalling the passenger’s story.
Onda also brings up the agony of a mother who can’t even so much as hug her baby, for fear that she might infect him with the coronavirus. She and her husband would argue about how she continues to go to work despite the real and present threat of this deadly disease. “Pero iniisip namin, kung ganoon lagi ang mindset namin, paano na lang yung mga pasyenteng naka-admit,” the nurse told him.
These were just some of the things the healthcare workers shared with Onda, a stranger. Better him, the passengers probably thought, than their families who are already worried about what medical workers go through and expose themselves to every day.
Onda is actually a marine scientist and University of the Philippines professor. He thought of offering free rides in his car because there were a lot of nurses and other medical practitioners affected by the shutting down of public transportation—and these people are needed to save lives.
Onda started by offering rides to his healthcare worker friends, announcing it on his Facebook page. He noticed there were others who thought of doing the same volunteer work and who had formed groups. He started “freelancing” among these different groups and later on decided to focus on MedPool, which services medical frontliners.
We reached out to Onda before the New Year to look back at 2020. Onda, who is Deputy Director for Research of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines (UP-MSI), says he did the volunteer work from the start of the ECQ in March 2020 until November 2020.
The online platform they were using stopped operating in June, but some volunteers, who had already established relations with some healthcare workers continued giving free rides as long as schedule permits. They reactivated the group in August when the healthcare workers cried for a “timeout” following a surge of cases in hospitals, requesting another lockdown to refine pandemic control strategies.
Other groups already stopped their volunteer work, so MedPool was receiving tons of requests. “Umaabot kami ngover a hundred per day. But we can’t service them all, kasi yung ibang volunteers namin hindi na din pwede dahil may work na or wala na ding budget,” he says.
Onda holds online classes during daytime in UP, so he was giving free rides at night. “Kasi may mga nurses na malapit lang sa area ko nagdu-duty. Nagte-text kami kung kailangan nila ng sundo. Kasi kahit during GCQ, mahirap pa din ang public transport,” he says.
Onda remained in touch with some of his regular passengers. But around middle of 2020, many of them had already resigned from their jobs because they could no longer take the work load. One passenger in November said she already has an employment contract in the UK, and is scheduled to leave this 2021. “Madami din sa nurses na kilala ko ang nag-break, or nagnegosyo na,” Onda says.
The marine scientist would also ask those who remained steadfast in the frontlines how they are doing. “Sabi ng isang kausap ko, ‘ayun, sir, kalahati sa amin may Covid na. Yung 18 hours per day, nagiging 24, 28, 32 hours na. Dire-diretso, tapos nahihirapan silang maghanap ng karelyebo. Naghahanap sila ng hospitals na mas mataas ang pay.”
‘Pagod pa din sila’
To hear them say it, the situation in the hospitals hardly improved, according to Onda. “They never had a day na wala silang hina-handle na Covid case. Walang pagbabago. Pagod pa din sila. Sabi nila, parang it’s March, April, May all over again. Madami pa din silang pasyente, although they got better in the way they handle the patients,” he says.
When news came out about the government wanting to recognize the healthcare workers as the country’s new heroes, the UP professor would ask his passengers what they felt of the gesture. “Sabi nila: ‘hindi naman namin hinihiling na ma-recognize na hero e. Ayaw lang naming itrato kaming disposable.”
Onda says he remains hopeful that despite the challenges, many of our medical workers are resolved to continue to serving the Filipinos here. Many of the nurses he met told him so. “I feel hopeful because despite the situation they are in, despite the fact that they haven’t been given the best support, they are still very committed to their work,” says Onda, “Kaya kami, we are happy to be of service to the frontliners.”
Photos courtesy of Deo Onda