MANILA, Philippines — When typhoon Glenda barrelled through Southern Luzon in the early hours of Wednesday, it took out 90% of Meralco’s power grid, leaving millions without electricity.
For young people like myself who are completely dependent on our mobile devices, this meant having to go without them as there was no way to charge their batteries. Even those who had power banks handy brought all of their gadgets either to work or the nearest neighbour with a generator, to top up and get back online.
Any millennial will tell you that having to go without Internet for an extended period of time can feel like a slow, agonising death, but for a group of young medical interns at the Philippine General Hospital, the real thing could very well have happened to their charges as the lights went dark on that hellish Wednesday morning of July 16.
It was around 4 in the morning on Wednesday when Abbie Sarmiento, 24, noticed the lights flicker as she did her monitoring rounds of Ward 3. The ward had 50 patients, 5 of which she had to check up on every hour as they were on mechanical ventilation machines. While the flicker was a little unnerving, she didn’t think the power would actually go out.
“I was thinking hindi talaga because we’re in PGH, (a) public hospital, ‘pag namatay yung ilaw, what will happen to the patients?” Abbie said.
(I thought the power wouldn’t go out, because we’re in PGH, a public hospital. If the power goes out, what will happen to the patients?)
At this point neither Abbie nor the other interns in her batch had ever experienced a blackout in the hospital and neither did they know what exactly to do if one occured. A moment later, the ward went dark and the ventilators and oxygen pumps that kept the patients alive stood still.
Abbie didn’t know what to do, but the nurses, who had obviously experienced this many times before, immediately sprang into action, rousing the caretakers or bantays shouting “Gising po! Ambu bag tayo! Ambu bag tayo!”
A bag valve mask, otherwise known as an “Ambu bag” looks like an oval ball made of rubber, with a ventilation mask on one end and a hose on the other. The first thing that had to be done was transfer the patients from their machines to the Ambu bags, and have the bantays manually pump oxygen from a nearby tank into their patients’ lungs.
This is simple enough to do for a short while, but understandably it gets tiring — not to mention the fact that you have to pump in sync with the patient’s breathing. “Kung hindi, you can burst someone’s lung”, explains resident physician Carlo Miguel Berba.
As they pumped, the nurses, residents and interns ran around in the dark, cellphones in hand for light (there weren’t any emergency lights), assisting the bantays and monitoring the patients’ blood oxygen levels — which for the most part remained stable throughout the ordeal.
After about a minute in total darkness, the generators kicked in, and the lights went back on. However, the outlets still didn’t work, and even when they did, it took a bit more time to reset the machines and re-insert the breathing tubes into the patients.
Both Abbie and Carlo seemed to agree that the worst part about the blackout was the fact that you had no idea how long it would last and if will happen again, which it did the next day — twice. In the space of 15 minutes.
To an extent, this first blackout experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of the young interns, who expected more from the hospital.
“At first I got disappointed with PGH,” said Abbie.
“In retrospect, I think PGH should be better equipped sana to handle (blackouts), especially with this many people who need it”, said Carlo. At the end of the day though, both of them concluded that important thing is that everyone — interns, nurses, residents, bantays, support staff — all worked together as a team and kept the patients alive during the blackout, despite the lack of resources.
“You get power outages — sana hindi—pero gagawin namin what we can to bridge the gap,” Carlo concluded.
“We have limited resources, but we make up for it with human resources,” added Abbie.
Federico Jose Basa Cruz is a freelance photographer. He is a graduate of the Ateneo De Manila University and a former staffmember of The Guidon.
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