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‘Because we took an oath’: Tales from the front line

They are part of the first line of defense against the dreaded new coronavirus disease (COVID-19): doctors, nurses, interns and other health workers who are just a thin mask away from people found positive for the virus, that can be transmitted via a careless cough or sneeze, or contact with contaminated surfaces. It is their sworn duty to their chosen profession, many of them tell worried kin. It is service to the country, they tell themselves just to shore up their personal resolve, now put to test by the long hours, by the lack of food, sleep and protective gear, and by sheer helplessness in the face of a pandemic that has yet to peak.

Here’s a glimpse into their struggles and worries, their sources of strength and their depths of courage.

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CALL OF DUTY As the country heads deeper into uncertain times amid the spreading threat of the new coronavirus, health workers—like this group who are given a free ride to the hospital, in a photo taken on March 18—provide a constant, reassuring presence to many, but are themselves not immune to the stress, exhaustion and the growing risk of getting sick as well. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

When only a few are left

Now, we’re much more appreciative of the value of our profession, and why we’re being trained this way: kasi dapat kapag mag-isa ka na lang, kapag kaunti na lang kayo, kaya mo, matatag ka, di ka matitinag. (Because when you’re alone, when there are so few of you left, you’d still manage to stand strong).

On Thursday, RizalMed (Rizal Medical Center) recognized us for being fearless enough to return to work despite the interns’ pullout. But we’re glad to serve an institution where our limitations are understood and our abilities are challenged.

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But honestly, I am still fearful and think of how I risk contracting the virus myself and possibly pass it on to my diabetic mother and hypertensive dad, who was also diagnosed with prostrate cancer.

Such is the life of a doctor—you must love it even when there are a million reasons to give up, show courage even when you’re scared, and show strength even when you are weakened by a health care system that greatly limits your ability to serve your patients and your country.

—Marianne Michelle Q. dela Rosa, postgraduate medical intern, Rizal Medical Center, Pasig City

What keeps us going

One of my most heartbreaking experiences was when my family visited me after weeks of not seeing each other. We could only stay meters apart, wearing masks, just to be safe. We wanted to hug, but we couldn’t risk compromising each other’s health. My little brother, however, insisted on holding my hand.

My father also works as a front-liner at another hospital and I constantly worry about his health. Working as a front-liner during this pandemic definitely takes a toll on you­—physically, mentally and emotionally. Your endurance, strength of character, knowledge, skill and dedication are constantly tested every day. But it can also be equally exhausting for families and loved ones, since most of them are faced with feelings of helplessness and constant worry.

What keeps us going is seeing how our fellow front-liners work bravely and passionately. The overwhelming support from the community through donations and prayers empowers us even more. We are reminded every day that we are fighting the good fight and for a cause much bigger than ourselves.

Ina P. Ortiz, MD, 2nd year internal medicine resident, University of the East Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center, Quezon City

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Numbers not the entire story

Worry comes with the calling. On the way to work, I worry about how my patients did overnight. By midafternoon, I worry about the new lab results and what to do with them. Midway through the graveyard [shift], it’s troubleshooting an old patient’s new complaints. That is the life. It’s the skipped meals, the gray hair, the dark circles under the eyes. But it’s not that simple anymore. The number of patients may have gone down because we no longer see outpatients to minimize exposure to the virus, but numbers are not the entire story.

These days, I worry about my mother’s tears as she opens the gate to see me off to work. I worry about the way my father coughs, as I hear him from another room. When I’m not with them I worry that they might keep such symptoms a secret, if only to minimize my stress. As I come home from work, my concern is that I might bring an infection they wouldn’t be able to handle. And just like you, I worry about how long this crisis will last. Until then, from beneath the mask and gloves, I will worry about my parents, while dreaming of the day when I can again be in the same room with them.

—Raf Gavino, MD, Internal Medicine, East Avenue Medical Center, Quezon City

Health is a right

As one of the front-liners in a rural community pressed to follow the health department’s directive, the hardest thing we’ve had to do is tell patients that they cannot be tested yet, that they have to go home and do self-quarantine. “We will be monitoring you,” is all we can tell them. They do not deserve this kind of medical treatment. At all times, health is a right.

—Kea Koko D. Bravo, MD, a “doctor to the barrios,’’ or rural health physician based in Villasis town, Pangasinan province

30 brave souls

When the Association of Philippine Medical Colleges Inc. announced the pullout of postgraduate medical interns from all hospitals, many of us, including myself, initially felt relieved because we’d be able to rest, sleep and study for our licensure exams this September.

But it felt wrong being at home and just wishing good luck to our seniors who got left behind in the front lines. In these troubling times, I remember a saying that goes, “I will never be able to forgive myself living with the knowledge that I could have done something but did not do anything.”

So together with 30 brave souls, we requested to be back in the hospital and help fight this pandemic. Some did not tell their parents because they knew the answer would be no. I know we have a long way to go but I’ve seen the hearts of the doctors, hospital staff, and even the guards who come in day in and day out. Their spirit is contagious. More contagious than that COVID-19 will ever be. –John Derek C. Clutario, president of the Department of Health-Philippine Centers for Specialized Health Care Interns’ Council

Counting on concrete actions

When the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) was designated as a referral hospital for COVID-19 cases, we immediately thought of the support we would be needing from the Department of Health and from the government: personal protective equipment like gowns, masks and face shields, especially for medical technologists handling blood specimens; assured accommodations for the staff on one week straight duty or two weeks’ quarantine scheme; disinfectants, sanitizers, manpower, and hazard pay and other benefits for job order employees who are exposed to the same risks as the permanent staff. We are counting on concrete actions. Help us do our jobs!”

—Thad Hinunangan, pathology resident physician, PGH, Manila

Give us options

I am not afraid to go to work. I am afraid that I can’t report to work. Give us options. Commuting was a real struggle [last Wednesday], and I had to walk and take a not-so-legal motorcycle ride. –KC Macose, radiology resident, Philippine Heart Center, Quezon City

We have a choice, but . . .

One thing that always stands out is that many of us health workers and front-liners are succumbing to the disease. It’s scary, it’s happening. But though we are scared, we still keep going. Because we took an oath. We are who we are because of our profession. We are not playing heroes, and we actually have a choice not to participate. We are not immune to the disease. But we choose to work because people need our help.

—John Daniel Ramos, former resident physician, PGH, Manila

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .

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