This cancer survivor is now a COVID-19 frontliner

Anna Gabrielle Cerezo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 21 2020 06:29 PM

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MANILA -- He didn’t think he would live long enough to celebrate his 18th birthday. In fact, he was unsure if he would even wake up the following day. 

Five days after he turned 17, Rodel Telan was diagnosed with mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the cartilage and bones. 

“When the doctor was discussing the cancer, there was a point he asked me to step out. They didn’t want me to hear the gravity of the situation. But when my mom and tito came out, they were wailing,” he recalled. 

Unknown to the teen, prior to the diagnosis, he was already on borrowed time as his cancer had already progressed to stage 3. 

“I hate to say it but I was hopeless back then… My family and I had no idea the cancer was at a late stage already,” he said. 

Since the cancer was “fast growing and likely to spread,” Telan immediately began chemotherapy and 3D radiation therapy. After the first few rounds of chemo, the boy no longer thought his tumor would kill him, but the treatment would. 

Although the process is usually painless, the side effects of chemotherapy can be brutal. According to the National Cancer Institute, chemotherapy targets cells that grow and divide rapidly since cancer cells tend to form new cells more quickly. However, since the drug cannot differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells, normal cells that divide quickly like those “that line the mouth and intestines or cause your hair to grow,” are attacked as well, causing nausea and vomiting, fatigue, anemia, bruising and bleeding, among others. 

“I thought I was going to die,” Telan said, recalling his experience. “I lost all my hair, my skin was burnt, and my weight dropped to 42 kilos.”

As harsh and invasive as chemo was, it made no promise of survival. Thus, Telan decided to forgo the treatment.

“My body could not take anymore of it. I don’t think I would have survived another session,” he said, admitting it was difficult to remain resilient at the time. “Hindi basta-basta ang Stage 3 cancer; not many survive, let alone for a kid like me.” 

FINANCIAL COSTS

Aside from the physical and emotional burden, Telan’s medical bills were also piling. 

“The MRI scans, which I needed monthly, cost P18,000,” Telan said. Combined with his radiation treatment, doctor fees, and medications, the total cost was more than a blue-collar family could afford. 

“Our life was not easy then,” Telan said. “Kargador si tatay at nagtitinda ng gulay sa palengke si nanay… At the time, we would just squat at the market, tapos ilalapag na ni mama dun 'yung paninda nyang gulay.”

Despite being underprivileged, Telan said his parents, who he described to be “very hardworking and resourceful,” did not deprive him of any medical care. 

Unwilling to break the hearts of parents, who had been working above and beyond to provide him with treatment that was otherwise out of their pocket, Telan desperately clung to the fleeting hope he had left. 

Even though the odds remained seemingly insurmountable, Telan pursued radiation therapy and strengthened his body by sleeping early and following a strict diet.

“For a year, I would only eat fruits and vegetables, sometimes fish. My mom and I would buy fruits and vegetables and juice them. That would be my meal,” Telan said. 

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He changed his outlook and considered waking up every day as a small victory. “Every morning, I would pray and say: Lord, thank you for the life you gave me,” he said.

Telan religiously continued his routine until his monthly visit to the hospital became less frequent. 

“The MRI results showed the tumor was getting smaller. My monthly visit became quarterly, and then every 6 months and eventually, the doctor said it will only be needed once a year,” he recalled. 

“When I turned 18, it felt like a miracle,” Telan confessed. “I couldn’t believe I made it that far and got through that year.”

CANCER-FREE

After 36 sessions of 3D radiation, the battle was over and Telan was finally cancer-free. 

“The doctor said he could no longer see the tumor or any regrowth… My family and I were so happy and thankful to God. My outlook in life became more positive,” he said.

Fast forward to nearly a decade after his brush with death: in a twist of fate, Telan once again found himself spending most of his days in the hospital. This time, however, the battle the 25-year-old is fighting is no longer for himself.

“I now understand why God gave me a chance to live. Binuhay ni Lord so I could be a frontliner,” he said. 

Now a registered medical technologist, Telan is risking his second shot at life to help COVID-19 patients get theirs. He is among the thousands of healthcare professionals across the nation on the frontlines of the war against the new strain of coronavirus.

As of this writing, at least 70,000 people had been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the potentially dangerous respiratory ailment COVID-19 in the Philippines. Of the number, around 23,281 have recovered, while 1837 died. 

Unfortunately, as the country continues to log thousands of cases daily, its first line of defense is shrinking. 

For example, at the government hospital Telan works in, he and his colleagues must deal with the unprecedented influx of positive, suspected and probable COVID-19 patients shorthanded, and with limited supply of PPE and masks.

“Manpower is getting smaller because the employees either got infected or left their service because they are also scared of catching it,” he said. 

As a result, the remaining health practitioners have to often work two straight shifts. 

“Hospital operations are 24/7. Unlike other jobs, there is no space or time for rest,” he said.

NOWHERE I WOULD RATHER BE

According to Telan, although the hazard and workload increased, their pay stayed meager. Despite this, he said “there is nowhere else he would rather be.” 

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“Our salary is not big but money can’t buy the opportunity we have to save lives right now... If all of us gave in to our stress, and entertained our fears and quit, no one would take care of the sick,” Telan mused. 

Geared in a “very uncomfortable and hot” bunny suit, and equipped with masks, face shield, goggles, and gloves, Telan spends 16 hours doing laboratory work and collecting samples from 40-60 patients. 

“To be honest, I am always drained but I just remind myself, this too shall pass,” he said. 

The work Telan does is the backbone of diagnosing and treating COVID-19 patients. Medical technologists provide accurate and reliable laboratory results clinicians need to make an effective diagnosis and administer the best healthcare. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 70 percent of medical decisions depend on their laboratory findings. 

Although dedicated, the RMT confessed he still worries about “the possibility of getting infected” every time he steps in the isolation area. 

“I have direct contact with COVID-positive patients and PUIs every time I get a specimen. I usually do blood extraction for laboratory processes,” he explained.

“I almost lost my life before but I am still afraid. There is still a lot I want to achieve. I don’t want to make my family sad either,” he added. 

SUSCEPTIBLE

Next to nurses, nursing assistants, and physicians, medical technologists were most susceptible to catching the coronavirus among the medical professionals. 

In the latest situationer released by the Department of (DOH) on July 19, at least 3,939 health workers have contracted COVID-19, of which, 35 were fatal. 

Although the PPE, meant to shield the frontliners from SARS-CoV-2, is reassuring, Telan said it makes work laborious. 

“When you take off the PPE, you can literally wring a bucket of sweat in your clothes. You can’t just drink, eat or go to the toilet at your convenience,” he described.

He continued: “Our vision is also affected because of the moist, sweat and fog that gets trapped inside the medical goggles while on duty.”

While the health practitioners are the ones bravely holding the front lines against this potentially deadly coronavirus by assisting those who need medical care, Telan said the public has an equally important task in saving lives and curbing the spread of the virus. 

“Please stay home if it is not essential. We always hear and read it but many still do not follow. Limit your contact with people,” he said. 

DANGER ZONE

Despite the government slowly easing the strict lockdown measures, since there is still no vaccine for COVID-19 or specific treatment available other than supportive care, Telan and his colleagues said preventive measures are crucial to protect the vulnerable population (people above 60, those with health conditions like asthma, lung or heart disease, diabetes or those conditions that affect their immune system) from succumbing to the virus. 

“The numbers will surely rise if people will keep going out of their homes unnecessarily,” he admonished.

In the most recent situationer released by the DOH, while the coronavirus was most rampant in young people, particularly those aged between 25-35 years old, it was the elderly population that clocked in the most fatalities. 

Although DOH reported most or 99.2 percent of these cases were mild (90.1 percent) and asymptomatic (9.1 percent), the prevalence of these cases not only makes it harder to contain but it also increases the possibility of the higher-risk groups from developing potentially life-threatening illnesses. 

Recently, as the cases continue to climb, a string of hospitals have declared they can no longer accept COVID-19 patients as their bedspace and intensive care unit (ICU) dedicated to severe and critical cases are at full capacity.

According to officials, Metro Manila in particular, has breached the “danger zone” of critical care utilization. 

“The enemy we are going up against cannot be seen, and note that not everyone has a strong immune system or resistance,” Telan reminded. 

Frontliners in the thick of the battle have witnessed how unforgiving and lethal the coronavirus is. 

“It’s devastating,” Telan said. “Most patients I encountered struggle just to breathe, some can barely talk and then there are some who are only relying on life support since their normal body functions have already failed.”'

According to the laboratory scientist, the hardest part of his job is knowing he “might be the last person the patient will see.” 

“What I hate the most is when the patients are still OK, they still respond when you talk to them but in a matter of moments they can no longer breathe properly and before you know it, they are gone,” Telan said.

One experience that left a mark on Telan was when “an intubated patient in isolation, who was in his 50s, mustered up all his strength to try to send a message.” 

According to the frontliner, the patient tried several times to communicate but he was unable to understand. Since he had other tasks, Telan told the man he will come back after his lab duties. Unfortunately, when he returned three short hours later, it was too late as the man already passed. 

“Hindi ko makalimutan 'yun naluluha na mata ni tatay. I really want to apologize to him because I was unable to fulfill his request or get his last message,” the RMT recalled. 

Despite the physical and emotional exhaustion, however, Telan said he is empowered to continue manning the frontlines because of his experience with cancer. 

“Between life and death, I know the feeling. I know what it is like to hold on to the very little hope you have left,” Telan said. 

According to him, he decided to tread and risk the danger of getting the disease to help give the COVID-19 patients the second chance he was lucky enough to have. 

“I want to make the most of my life, while I have the chance,” he said. 

After a gruelling day the RMT goes home to an empty rented apartment.

“The scariest part of this battle is bringing the virus home to your loved ones. Most healthcare workers now choose to rent despite emotional exhaustion,” Telan shared.

While he has not seen his family in months, he said he still draws his strength from them. 

“Everyday they call to check on me. Even though they are afraid, especially since I am alone, they wholeheartedly support me, whatever my decision is,” Telan shared.

“They never told me to resign or quit, instead they just remind me to take care of myself, take my vitamins,” he added.

After nearly a decade, Telan once again goes to bed without certainty. This time, however, he no longer wakes up as a cancer patient who was lucky enough to live another day, but as a modern-day hero, armed with a mission to save his fellow Filipinos. 

“Who would’ve thought that a helpless kid who almost got his ticket to heaven will find renewed purpose in this pandemic… It all makes sense now, this is my purpose — so that I can contribute to help others during this crisis,” he said. 

Worldwide, at least 14.6 million people have been infected with COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard.