A Filipino medical professional at San Lazaro Hospital in Manila. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

Voices from the frontline: Real talk from medical workers assigned to COVID-19 patients

Lack of resources like face masks, patients who withhold information, and the risks they take exposing themselves to patients carrying the virus — these are just some of the challenges these doctors and nurses face everyday. BY TIMI NUBLA
| Mar 14 2020

While increased presence of police and military are expected around the city in the next few days to enforce the NCR lockdown due to COVID-19, the real war is being fought inside hospitals—its soldiers the medical practitioners duty bound not only to treat and care for patients suspected or afflicted by the virus, but also to risk their own lives due to exposure to those who are carrying the virus. 

Grappling with limited resources amidst a rising number of NCOV cases, a number of medical professionals shared their current sentiments, challenges, and frustrations with ANCX.

“They’re scared. Everyone is scared,” says Maddie (not her real name), an anesthesiologist who works in three private hospitals with confirmed NCOV-positive patients. “But we’re duty-bound. We took an oath”, she adds.

Maddie admits a lot of medical workers are already getting exposed, and risking their safety and their lives, while dealing with insufficient resources. “Ni surgical masks wala” (“We don’t have enough surgical masks”).

A nurse shows the basic hospital at an nCoV holding area on February 05, 2020 at the Ospital ng Paranaque. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

You may also like:

Camille, a doctor from a government hospital, adds that they have had to look for their own face masks just to stay protected. “Kani-kaniyang sourcing” (“We do individual sourcing”). “The public hoards materials so supplies run out. When you look at social media, many people thank us, pero nagpa-panic-buying (but then go panic buying). So ano ’to? Pakitang tao lang ba?  (So is this just to look good?)”, she laments.

But what frustrates and worries them even more is how some patients lie about their travel and contact history, putting front liners like themselves at greater risk. “There’s a strict doctor-patient confidentiality rule so we don’t even know why they lie,” she says, desperation seeping in between her words. 

Visibly angry and frustrated, another doctor from a private hospital with several NCOV cases puts it more bluntly— “There are stupid patients”, he says.  Ralph (not his real name) recounts their hospital’s encounter with a patient who initially withheld information that he had contact with someone from China. He only came clean when his condition became severe, but by that time, close to 100 hospital personnel, from the doctors, nurses, down to the janitors, had already been exposed and are now on quarantine. The lack of transparency not only put them at risk, but also depleted their medical team.

Shortly before the interview, this same doctor had actually just received news that a government hospital was no longer accepting suspected NCOV cases. Several of their medical personnel had just been put on quarantine, with a doctor critically ill, after they too were exposed to a patient who turned out to be NCOV-positive.

Over at a government children’s hospital, a nurse shares that her colleagues encountered a similar experience. Rita (not her real name) says a toddler was rushed to their hospital with high fever. The mother denied any recent travel, but the grandmother later admitted that the mother had just come from another Asian country. Armed with the new information, the attending doctor recommended testing for NCOV, but the mother refused and left. “Hindi siya mapilit. They just signed a waiver na uuwi na lang” (“We couldn’t force them. They just signed a waiver indicating that they declined to be admitted”), says Rita. 

The nurse relents that all they can do in such cases is to report the event to their City Health Department, who then calls and monitors those who refuse confinement. She admits this is not the best procedure, but they are currently not capable of detaining people by force. More than this, she worries that there may be a growing number of people feeling sick, who are also not coming forward. 

“Maaring maraming may nararamdaman pero natatakot sa gastos. Kaya yung mga narereport, karamihan galing lang ng private hospitals” (“It’s possible that there are people who feel sick but are worried about the expenses. Which is why most reported cases come from the private hospitals”), she warns.

With the problems in detection, coupled with the growing number of cases, these medical workers admit, their hospitals are not currently equipped to respond to a sharp rise in cases.

Ralph says that if cases further escalate, they are all expected to be on call except for the elderly doctors, aged 60 years and above. “We are now called upon to volunteer ourselves and assist in the ER, regardless of your specialization. We will all be exposing ourselves.” Also married to a doctor, Ralph says he and his wife decided to lease a condominium unit near the hospital, to keep their children safe. “Just in case, that’s where we will quarantine ourselves. I am lucky, but the majority are not”, he says, heaving a sigh.  

Members of Filipino Nurses United call for the government’s transparency and ask for protective gear for nurses working at the frontlines in containing the spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus during a general meeting at the Philippine General Hospital on February 6, 2020. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

For Camille, her constant fear when she reports to work each morning, is if she could still see her family at the end of the day. “In case you handle a PUI (person under investigation), you will also be quarantined for 14 days. So that’s everyone’s concern. No one knows when they can go home.”

Maddie on the other hand, is already conditioning herself for the inevitability of exposure. “We are the ones who intubate the patients when they become critically ill. So imagine, they release aerosols just by opening their mouths. When they cough and sneeze at you,” she laments.

While their situation is not in any way something to joke about, Rita allows herself a chuckle when the subject of social distancing comes up. There is no social distancing when it comes to patient’s care. “Siyempre sa pasyente, hindi naman pwede ang social distancing. Paano mo sila aalagaan nun?” (“Of course you can’t practice social distancing in patients. How will you care for them if you do?”). She returns to serious mode, however, when the subject is her family. “Natatakot kami for the family, na madala naming yung virus sa kanila. Ok lang kung kami lang, kaya lang uuwi kami eh ( We are scared for our families. We’re scared of infecting them with the virus. We don’t mind it for ourselves, but the problem is, we go home to them”), she says.

Despite the dangers, they all say it is unthinkable to refuse an assignment. “It is our oath to help”, explains Ralph. “If you refuse without a valid reason, you can be removed from service.”

“Gusto kong ma-paranoid, pero hindi pwede. I can’t perform my duty”. (“I’d like to be paranoid, but I can’t because then I can’t perform my duty”), adds Rita.

With all the risks they face, all they can do apart from performing their duties, is appeal to the public to not make things worse: help by being honest and transparent, not hoard resources, and stay home to stop the spread.

***

TOWNS (The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service) CALL FOR DONATIONS IN KIND to support and protect our medical workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. N95 masks

2. Surgical gloves

3. 3-ply mouth masks

4. Alcohol spray / alcogel 

5. Face shields / disposable eye shields

6. Disposable non-woven gowns

7. Disposable hoods

8. Disposable shoe covers

TOWNS will match your supply to specific hospitals in need.

If you have any of the following, in any quantity, please message +63977-240-1211.

***

Art Rocks is an art fair and auction house, founded by a doctor, that works exclusively online.

This community hopes to raise Php7.5M to afford the procurement of Php10,000 testing kits for COVID-19 from Korea for our fellow Filipinos.

If you wish to donate, you may do so via:

3893-0063-53

Steve Lim

BPI Savings Account