The Fight Outside Metro Manila: Frontliners from Pampanga, Bicol, Cebu, Zamboanga, and Sulu Share Their Stories
As of writing, the Department of Health states that the total number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines is now at 6,710, with roughly half of the cases from outside Metro Manila.
Every day at 4PM, I eagerly check the Department of Health bulletin… dozens of new cases daily. Lately, it seems as if mornings roll into nights almost seamlessly, with only digital devices keeping me at bay. Life is at a halt for here and the rest of the world and we are all in a waiting game—waiting for what’s next, how to rebuild, and how a new tomorrow may arise. Each day is a new normal created by the push and pull of tragedy, resilience, and hope. And none are more resilient than our health workers who literally stand in between life and death for those afflicted with COVID-19.
I talk to doctors from Pampanga, Bicol, Cebu, Zamboanga, and Sulu to get a grasp of the situation outside Metro Manila’s military-clad borders. Although the nation’s capital region shares roughly half of the confirmed cases, the fight against this disease is nonetheless trying outside its boundaries. I began to wonder, how is the rest of the nation coping?
Fighting An Invisible Enemy
From Pampanga, I speak to Dr. Kevin Rengel, a Medical Officer III at the Jose B. Lingad Memorial General Hospital; he is currently assigned at the Department of Internal Medicine. “For us healthcare workers, it is a fight of endurance. We must stay healthy despite working long shifts and tiring posts,” he shares. From Zamboanga, ER Resident at the West Metro Medical Center, Dr. Jobelline Fernandez adds that the biggest challenge during this time is “[the] lack of PPEs; It's like we are sent to war without any weapons, fighting an invisible enemy.”
It’s hard to imagine how any of our doctors brave the challenge of each waking day, knowing quite well that risks come even while wearing every form of protective gear. When asked what keeps them going, Dr. Eloisa Eijansantos from Cebu had this to share, “it's my family and those who have the chance to live and survive… we need to make sacrifices for [them].” Dr. Eloisa is currently assigned at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center. “Every person in the hospital is vital,” she adds. “We are understaffed because of personnel reassignments, but we [still] make ways to heal sick babies.”
Dr. Kevin shares with me a hopeful sentiment, “all my loved ones are [the] inspiration for waking up in the morning; getting up, donning the PPE, and seeing the next patient. Seeing my fellow healthcare workers get sick but still putting up a fight and coming to work also gives me strength. I am motivated because I believe that one day this will all end, and all will go back to normal.”
The Battle Outside Metro Manila
As to what it takes to fight COVID-19 outside Metro Manila, each doctor had varying experiences. Dr. Mary Jane Guazon Uy (fondly called “Jing” by her peers) is the Chief of Medical Professional Staff at the Bicol Medical Center. She paints a picture as to how the disease came to Camarines Sur.
“When it was certain that COVID-19 was finally going to reach Naga, I called a meeting with the heads of our clinical departments. We had to prepare for something from our darkest imaginations. Although this was a scenario that was exhaustively discussed during my course in Public Health, it was never really taken seriously, even by the faculty. Who would have thought that this calamity could visit in our lifetime? At a 200 percent occupancy rate, our patients spill out to the corridors and pile on three to a bed especially in the OB wards. Where were we going to house these highly contagious COVID-19 admissions when they finally arrive?”
The other doctors note that fighting the disease outside the Metro is also hampered by the lack of proper information dissemination. “Misinterpretation creates a barrier in penetrating preventive and medical management in communities, “ Dr. Eloisa shares.
Dr. Jing adds, “the Department of Health was in the spotlight from the very start of the epidemic… with a public trained to listen only to news with emotional appeal, Sec. Duque was unable to dish out the kind of information his audience craved for… [still], we [are] doing tolerably well here in Camarines Sur. Donations of food, cash and PPEs come in on a daily basis.”
From Zamboanga, Dr. Jobelline (in tandem with Dr. Gerard Santos, fellow ER Resident and partner) notes that the situation can be quite upsetting. “We worry for our patients because there are still no vaccines available. We fear for ourselves that we, too, may contract the virus. But most especially, our hearts break for our loved ones that we cannot even be there for them while we are taking care of other people.”
One’s Hippocratic Oath and The Will To Help
Sifting through each doctor’s answers has left me with a heavy heart. At the end of all this, there are still months of struggle they will all surely face. Their stories have made me realise that behind the glamour and prestige of being an MD lies a simpler truth: it’s a sincerely noble calling. “A doctor is bound to duty over any matter,” a touching statement by Dr. Fatimah Al-Zahra Ditti from Sulu; she is currently an ER Medical Officer at the DOH-Sulu Sanitarium.
Dr. Eloisa shares this sensibility. She notes, “Never have I imagined that our lives would be at stake. But an oath was made… we do this because our knowledge and skills are needed; we do this because [it] is what is morally right.”
Dr. Jobelline adds, “[This] has tested my dedication to my profession. While most of our relatives wanted us to stay home, we opted to go on duty. Zamboanga City has limited doctors; Dipolog City, even less. If we won't commit, our fellow doctors will be burdened with more duty hours and toxic shifts.”
“We put our lives on the line for others and such is a great honour,” Dr. Kevin says proudly.
On The Personal Side
A get together with family and friends seems closer to a dream than reality right now. All this has made me realise how easy it is to take simple pleasures for granted. When asked how this whole experience has affected him personally, Dr. Kevin shares, “[I] miss being with my family, having dinner with them—going on a date with my girlfriend, going out with my daughter, and hanging out with my friends.”
Faith also comes to play in such a crisis. Dr. Fatimah says that it is her personal relationship with God that keeps her going, despite all odds.
In Bicol, Dr. Jing shares of a burgeoning concern. “One of the most significant things I observed during this health crisis is the discrimination of some people towards health workers. It was put forward that since the disease was found mostly in the hospitals, and physicians were actually the ones dying from [it], it would be better to lockdown the hospital and everyone else in it." She had to issue a rebuttal statement in the Bikol vernacular to ameliorate the situation unfolding. "Municipal Health Officers did not permit our employees back to their homes for the Holy Week," she continues with her story.
“Fortunately, [her statement] was well received, even by the guards and janitors who were [now] engaged in public discourse,” she adds. Goes to show that communication truly is key, especially in uncertain times like this.
For Dr. Jobelline and Gerard, this situation has been a hard pill to swallow. “[This has] opened our eyes to the sad reality that no matter how noble our profession is and no matter how much we try, we can only do so much.”
Returning To What Was
The future remains hazy yet a clearer picture beckons in the horizon with every recovered COVID-19 case. We have these doctors and all the hardworking front liners out there to thank for that.
There can be a lot of devastating news and occurrences surrounding us today, in fact, it’s difficult not to feel small or powerless. But talking to these doctors has given me an understanding of humanity, in its simplest sense. We are all fighting to be alive, in every meaning of the term. A truth as simple as it is poignant.
“We are all in the process of transformation, getting used to changes that have completely taken over our world. The virus is the smallest angle that has altered our total trajectory. The past is gone. We are not going back.” Dr. Jing says.
Her statement rings true as we wait for what’s next once lockdowns and quarantines are lifted. People speak of a new normal and such is truly the case — in a post COVID-19 world, we may look back at this time and see how these few months have changed us for good.
We eagerly cheer on each hard-working health worker and front liner who prove to us that there is a lot to hope for. For now, the world beyond our doorstep lies in wait as we patiently behold every rising and setting of the sun, digital devices in tow.
Special thanks to all the doctors who took time out of their busy schedules to respond to our interview. For official updates on COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, visit the Department of Health's official website: doh.gov.ph.