MANILA – The risks and inconveniences accompanied with being a health frontliner in the Philippines’ battle against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) are outweighed by the honor and fulfillment in lending one’s professional service in this time of public health emergency, according to two health workers who heeded the government’s call for volunteers.
“Masarap sa pakiramdam ang makatulong sa kapwa na walang kapalit,” Juliet Dela Torre, 32, a nurse who signed up as a “healthcare warrior” of the Department of Health, told ABS-CBN News on Wednesday.
(It’s a very good feeling to be able to help our fellows without getting something back.)
“To be honest, I never expect any benefits from volunteering. I never looked at the amount that I will receive. All I want is to help. To get some benefits is just a bonus for me,” added the healthcare professional who served a government hospital in the capital last April 1 to 7, and is now completing a 14-day quarantine.
Medical technologist Ian Gel Sumaribos, 23, is also just as committed despite fears of getting contaminated and the inconveniences he has to endure while on duty.
In a separate online interview with ABS-CBN News on Thursday, Sumaribos, who is serving as phlebotomist at the Philippine General Hospital beginning April 1 through Sunday, April 12, said, “I want to help them. This is my only way to help our nation right now.”
CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS
Last month, the health department reached out to medical and non-medical professionals willing to volunteer their services to augment the workforce at referral hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
The call was made amid the rising number of coronavirus cases that, unfortunately, also included some health workers, and the dwindling workforce in a number of health facilities where personnel exposed to COVID-19 patients need to undergo quarantine for at least 14 days.
The program, however, partly drew criticism over the P500 daily allowance that the DOH announced for each volunteer. Responding to calls for proper compensation, a lawmaker said Congress is willing to match it with the salary of newly hired government health workers.
As of March 30, the program’s Facebook page said 1,000 volunteers have already signed up. A query sent by ABS-CBN News for an updated tally remains unanswered as of posting time.
THE NURSE WARRIOR
Dela Torre, the nurse, said her instant reaction upon learning about the volunteer program was to apply because it is “a chance to help in this crisis” even when, in her mind at the time, medical frontliners were being discriminated against and are at risk of getting infected by the virus.
“My intention is to help my fellow nurses and also the patients,” said Dela Torre, who, prior to taking part in the program and until now, has been working as an office nurse for three years.
As a “healthcare warrior” against COVID-19, her routine goes beyond monitoring vital signs of patients (body temperature, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood glucose or sugar) and giving medication.
She said she also helped educate the patients about the disease, and try to uplift their spirits.
“First, I greet them with enthusiasm. It’s a big help to them, to make them feel that you really care for them. It’s a big help because you give them hope that they will survive,” Dela Torre shared when asked how she interacts with COVID-19 patients she has attended to.
“Kamustahin mo sila, how they feel. I talk to them and tell them, ‘Magpalakas para mabilis makalabas’.”
(You ask them how they are, how they feel. I talk to them and tell them, ‘Regain your strength so you can be discharged soon’.)
She said she was jittery on her first day, and then became fine in the succeeding days.
When she celebrated her birthday on April 6, Dela Torre said her patient’s “happy birthday” greeting certainly made her special day meaningful. “It’s the happiest birthday that my heart felt,” she said.
Dela Torre, who is a single parent, said dealing with COVID-19 patients taught her to be strong and independent as she saw them struggle against the disease without any watcher.
On the physical aspect, donning and doffing the personal protective equipment proved to be the most challenging for her in this particular experience, as she has to be properly secured inside the COVID-19 ward area and make sure she and her working space are not contaminated.
“Dapat, full stomach before duty kasi 8 hours ko suot ang PPE. No food, drink and bladder break,” she shared. “Although we’re allowed to have a break, but ang hassle nang pagsuot at pagtanggal din ng PPE. And masakit din sa face ang N95.”
(I need to have a full stomach before duty because I need to wear my PPE for 8 hours. No food, drink and bladder break. Although, we’re allowed to have a break, but wearing and taking off the PPE is a hassle in itself. And wearing the N95 mask for too long can cause discomfort on the face.)
Dela Torre said she had to eat breakfast at 5:30 a.m., and lunch follows at 3 p.m. when she was on duty.
After taking off the PPE, she disinfects through a mist shower of disinfectant and practice proper hand hygiene before changing clothes.
Dela Torre is thankful to God she is currently “super OK” and has “no sign and symptoms of COVID-19.”
THE MED TECH WARRIOR
Upon hearing about the volunteer program, Sumaribos, a medical technologist at a clinic in Blumentritt, Manila, said he expressed interest immediately “because the cases then were not that high.”
But he “honestly” felt scared already for all healthcare workers “because we will be risking our lives against COVID-19,” he said.
His desire to help prevailed, nevertheless. Although, as he immersed himself into the job, he realized his initial fear is real. “I know that we are currently risking our lives, despite the complete PPE,” he said.
For his protection, Sumaribos strictly observes proper hygiene and physical distancing.
The most challenging for him at work is when his goggles get foggy during a blood extraction procedure. Wearing 2 to 3 layers of gloves makes it hard for him, too, to perform his task.
Even before his voluntary service ends this Sunday, which will be followed by a 15-day quarantine period, Sumaribos already voiced his willingness to continue helping “if ever they need more manpower.”
“If the crisis doesn’t end yet, I will still help the people and be a part of the solution,” he said.
Dela Torre and Sumaribos did not disclose the monetary benefits they are getting under the program, but both confirmed they have free meals and accommodation.
Dela Torre said her facility gave her an honorarium for her 7-day duty, which she is already grateful for.
According to Sumaribos, the contract he signed indicates he will be compensated even for the days he will go on quarantine.
While Dela Torre acknowledged the support she experienced from authorities in terms of food provisions, PPEs and more importantly, for their morale while on duty, Sumaribos appealed to government to “give more importance” to healthcare workers,” who, for him, are the “hope in this time of crisis.”
The two find comfort in the expressions of support and cheers from the public for all medical frontliners, which, for Sumaribos, “inspire” them to fight even more against the COVID-19.
Appealing for the public’s continued cooperation and patience as the entire nation confronts the pandemic, they underscore the importance of unity to be able to overcome the crisis.
The government has placed the main island of Luzon and other areas in the Visayas and Mindanao under an enhanced community quarantine to curb the spread of the disease that has swept the world since it first emerged in China late last year.
Tens of millions of people have been mandated to stay at home, while those authorized to go out need to wear masks. Health officials keep reiterating their reminders for people to observe physical distancing, regular washing of hands, and proper coughing etiquette.
As of Friday, the Philippines has logged nearly 4,200 cases of coronavirus infection, of which, 221 patients have died and 140 others have recovered. The number of cases is expected to rise as the country acquired more testing kits and expanded its accredited testing centers.
"I know this crisis will kill us, our economy, our government. But if we fight as one, I know we will overcome this COVID-19. Just always pray for our country," Sumaribos said.
Dela Torre added: “If you have a chance to give your time, knowledge and skills, do it now. Share it . . . Be a blessing to others.”
“I volunteered to help, not to be a hero.”