MANILA - Divina Guerrero's family in the Philippines dissuade her from going to work, fearing for her safety whenever she heads to a small hospital in Bergamo, a city within the Italian region that was hit hardest by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
But the 53-year-old nurse chooses to fight alongside medical frontliners in Policlinico San Marco as long as she is needed.
"No’ng unang-una talagang desperasyon eh, ang nararamdaman namin dahil wala man kaming magawa na matulungan ang ibang tao," she told ABS-CBN News in a video interview.
"Pero ‘yong time na may nakikita kaming mga taong pasyente na lumalaban, doon po kami nagkaroon ng...positive energy. Sabihin na natin na may pag-asa," she added.
"Kung sino ‘yong lalaban, lalaban din po kami para sa kanila. 'Yon po ang aming pinanghahawakan po sa ngayon."
(At first, desperation was all we felt because we were helpless. But when we saw patients fighting, there was positive energy. Let's call it hope. Whoever wishes to fight, we'll fight alongside him. We're holding on to that.)
The region of Lombardy has reported about 25,006 cases of COVID-19, as of the end of March.
The whole of Italy is on lockdown since March 13, as it tallied the biggest number of deaths in Europe, at about 13,000 fatalities as of writing.
The global death toll passed 40,000 on Tuesday, according to a tally by Agence France-Presse. As of Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard has recorded more than 860,000 COVID-19 cases around the world. Of that number, 178,000 have recovered.
'SHOCK' AT VIRUS OUTBREAK
Guerrero, who has been working in Italy since 1992, said health workers were in a "state of shock" when the first wave of COVID-19 patients came.
"Left and right, harap man o likod, nandyan lahat ang mga pasyente that time kaya hindi namin malaman kung saan namin ilalagay ang aming mga kamay. At kahit sa panaginip, hindi namin ma-imagine na magkakatotoo itong ganitong sitwasyon," she said,
(Left and right, front or back, patients were there, that's why we didn't know where to place our hands. Even in our dreams, we couldn't imagine this kind of situation happening.)
The "incredible" scenario continued, she said. The lively buzz of the industrial city of Bergamo was replaced by the never-ending sound of ambulance sirens, as it grappled with the pandemic, she recalled.
The operating room where she was a staff nurse was converted into an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients who needed ventilators, with the original 20-bed ICU suddenly fully-packed.
Some other hospitals also had to station patients along corridors, while some had to build tents to accommodate additional heads, she said. Hotels and care centers became hospitals, she said.
"Wala pong specific na details kung gaano karami ‘yung araw-araw na admittance sa kahit na anong ospital dito...hindi na po kayang bilangin sa totoo lang po," she said.
(There are no specific details how many are admitted in any hospital here. It can no longer be counted, to be honest.)
"Minsan ‘yung nasa harap mo, sina-save mo, susunod na agad ‘yung nasa left and right mo o nasa likod mo kaya hindi po namin nakaya kaya po," she added.
(There were times that you were trying to save the one in front of you, then someone else on your left or right or behind you needs you next, that's why we thought we could not do it anymore.)
STRENGTH IN DIFFICULT TIMES
Apart from the physical exhaustion from their job, Guerrero said health workers also bore the emotional pain of seeing their patients, who are isolated from their beloved, lose the battle against COVID-19.
"Feel na feel namin po ‘yung sakit na nadarama ng pamilya dahil mula’t sapul na mapunta, mapasok sila sa ospital, hanggang mamatay sila, hanggang sa mailibing, hindi po nila makikita ang mga pamilya po nila. ‘Yun ang napakasakit po sa amin," she said.
(We feel the pain felt by the family because from the time the patients are admitted to the hospital, until they die, until they are buried, they are not seen by their families. That's very painful for us.)
There's also the fear of possibly contracting the virus from the patients they're attending to, she said.
"Ang takot, laging kasama. Tuwing papasok po ako, tuwing nandiyan po ‘yong mga pasyente, ang takot, hindi nawawala. Kaya lang, hindi rin naman po ako nakakalimot sa taas. Na magdasal para hindi makuha ‘yong virus," she said.
(The fear is always there. Whenever I go to work, whenever the patient is there, the fear doesn't go away. But I don't forget to turn to God, to pray that I don't get the virus.)
She also arms herself with the knowledge and "presence of mind" how to avoid getting infected, so that she may protect herself and her family.
Although Guerrero sometimes feel helpless, she said she and her colleagues find strength in their patients.
"Hindi lang hirap, dusa, takot at ‘yung morale na bumababa tuwing makikita mo sa lahat ng anggulo ng hospital na ganito ang sitwasyon ng mga tao. Para bang nagiging helpless ka sa lahat ng mga panahong nakikita mo itong mga tao na naghihirap, naghihintay ng mga ventilators para matulungan silang huminga," she said.
(It's not just the difficulty, suffering, fear, or lowering morale whenever you see this situation in hospitals. You feel helpless when you see people in pain, waiting for ventilators so they may breathe.)
"Gano’n pa man, nagkakaro’n kami ng lakas ng loob sa mga taong lumalaban sa gitna ng kahirapang ito," she added.
(Still, we find strength in people who fight in the middle of all this hardship.)
MESSAGE TO COUNTERPARTS IN THE PHILIPPINES
Guerrero also keeps tabs on her family in the Philippines. So far, there are 2,311 cases of COVID-19 in the country, with 50 recoveries and 96 fatalities.
The island of Luzon, where about half of the population lives, has been under enhanced community quarantine for 2 weeks. Guerrero agrees that this measure is necessary to stop the spread of the disease.
"Kung kailangan ng strict talaga na gawain ang ipagawa ng gobyerno para sa mga tao, gawin kaagad para hindi umabot ng katulad dito sa Bergamo. Dahil pag umabot ng tulad dito sa Bergamo, napakahirap, napakahirap at hindi madali," she said.
(If the government imposes strict measures, it should be followed immediately so that it doesn't escalate to what we have here in Bergamo. Because if it does, it's going to be very difficult.)
She also advises fellow frontliners to be "prepared physically, mentally, and spiritually."
"Ang kalaban natin dito ay talagang matindi," she said.
(Our enemy here is really strong.)
She added, health workers at the fore of the battle must always be alert.
"Kailangan po ‘yan during the battle para hindi po tayo matalo. ‘Pag nagawa niyo po ‘yon during your job, sigurado po mapoprotektahan ninyo ang sarili ninyo at ang pamilya niyo. At mase-save niyo po ang marami nating kababayan," she said.
(We need that during the battle so that we won't lose. If you do that as you do your job, you will surely protect yourselves and your families. You will also save many of our countrymen.)
"Kailangan po nating magdasal pa rin, at God bless po sa lahat sa inyo na tumutulong sa mga pasyenteng may COVID po," she added.
(We also have to pray. May God bless all of you who help patients with COVID.)