Overseas Warriors: Up close with UAE’s Filipino nurses during the pandemic

Jojo Dass
There are about 30,000 Filipino nurses in the United Arab Emirates, many of them working in the front lines. One of them proclaims she is an Overseas Filipino Warrior.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – “Every time I go for duty these days,” Nenita Domingo Tuddao said, “I feel like a soldier going to war.”

Tuddao, who has been a registered nurse with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) for the past 14 years, said she has never been as scared as in this time of the coronavirus.

“Who wouldn’t when your opponent is invisible?” she said.

Tuddao is among the thousands of Filipino nurses working at the front lines of the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE’s) efforts to fight COVID-19.

SCARY. At some point, the situation is ‘a bit scary because you could not see the virus,’ says Ronald Soriano Gamiao, president of the Filipino Nurses Association in the Emirates. Photo courtesy of Ronald Gamiao


Ronald Soriano Gamiao, president of the Filipino Nurses Association in the Emirates (FNAE), said there are approximately 30,000 of them. There are 45 government and 98 private sector hospitals in the country, according to the Federal Statistics and Competitive Authority (FSCA).

Grateful

Filipino nurses in the UAE are grateful that unlike their counterparts in hard-hit European countries, and even back home in the Philippines, they are relatively safe because of the government’s quick response to the COVID-19 crisis.

While most of the nurses interviewed for this story said they wish they were in the Philippines helping out, they lamented that they would not have been away had the government been more considerate of their plight in the first place.

There have been 13 Filipinos who have so far tested positive for COVID-19, of whom 3 have recovered, according to the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP). Owing to strict privacy laws here, whether any of them were nurses could not immediately be ascertained.

Hustle and bustle

“It’s been a time of hustle and bustle in our emergency department,” Mark Lester Perez of Tagaytay City and a nurse at a hospital in Abu Dhabi said.

“Nurses like me are getting ill.  We have a shortage of staff right now (because) some are on quarantine as they have been exposed to positive COVID-19 cases,” Perez said.

HOPEFUL. Mark Lester Perez, a nurse at an Abu Dhabi hospital, can't wait to rejoin the medical team fighting the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Mark Perez

Perez, at the time of writing, was on quarantine himself because his colleague tested positive for COVID-19.

“Myself and 4 other nurses are waiting for the test. I hope it turns out negative so I can resume work and take care of our patients again,” he said.

Close brushes

Being frontliners, most nurses by now have had close brushes with the virus.

“Scariest experience for me,” said Erma Gallardo Quismundo of Pagsanjan, Laguna, “was when a patient and a staff were having symptoms that could lead to positive test results.”

SYMPTOMS. Erma Gallardo Quismundo says it was frightening when a patient and the staff started showing symptoms. Photo courtesy of Erma Quismundo

Nakakatakot talaga na ma-expose sa COVID-19 kasi tao lang din akong may pamilyang umaasa sa aking pagbabalik sa Pilipinas,” she added. (It’s scary to be exposed to COVID-19. I am also human and have a family waiting for me back home.)

Sheryl A. Palacios-Manalo of Glan in Sarangani Province, said she got COVID-19 symptoms shortly upon her return to Abu Dhabi after taking a leave of absence around February.

Nakaranas ako ng symptoms, nag-self-quarantine ako nang one week. Sa awa ng Diyos, negative naman po swab ko,” Manalo said. (I experienced symptoms. I self-quarantined for a week. With God’s mercy, my swab test turned out negative.) 

“It’s feels like pins and needles for us,” said Perez. “Most of our staff couldn’t even hug their kids at home, afraid that they will pass on the virus.”

What’s even heartbreaking, Perez said, is that some people tend to distance themselves from them whenever they walk around the street wearing scrubs. This, apparently out of their fear that they may be infected as well.

Working at a cosmetic dentistry clinic, Michelle Bernardo of Bacoor, Cavite said she, too, has been having goosebumps.

“I would say exposed kami sa clinic dahil most of our clients work overseas like cabin crew, pilots, and businessmen who travel back and forth to Dubai. Hindi mo alam kung sino na ang infected sa mga pasyente namin. Yung iba naman baka in denial,” Bernardo said. (We don’t know who among our patients are infected. The others might be in denial.)

Charmane Claveria Pedrola of Iloilo City said they had a suspected COVID-19 case whom they managed to refer to a health facility assigned for such patients. She said it was nerve-wracking.

Meron siyang headache at throat pain. At nagkaruon din sya ng close contact with someone who was COVID-positive. (He had a headache and throat pain. And he had close contact with someone who was COVID-positive.) So, we put him straight in our temporary isolation room.”

NERVE-WRACKING. Charmane Claveria Pedrola (right) says they managed to refer a patient to a hospital for COVID-19 cases. Photo courtesy of Charmane Pedrola

Pedrola, a health care assistant at a Dubai hospital, narrated, “Our doctor consulted him. Tapos, tumawag kami sa 998 hotline; ibinigay yung details ng patient (Then we called the 998 hotline and gave the details of the patient) and they told us to refer the patient to the nearest hospital.”

Pedrola said it was scary.

Nervous

Marivell A. Cordova, a health care assistant from Bislig City, Surigao del Sur, said she is always on her toes whenever she is on shift.

Medyo kabado everytime na papasok sa work kasi ‘di natin alam what will happen. Every patient ina-assess namin for travel history if meron ba. We also check if they have fever… yung lahat ng signs ng COVID-19,” said Cordova, who works at a Dubai hospital.

(I am a bit nervous whenever I go to work because we do not know what will happen. We assess every patient for travel history, if any. We also check if they have fever…all the signs of COVID-19.)

WORRIES. Every day is a source of anxiety for Marivell Cordova after possible exposure to COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Marivell Cordova

She added: “Napa-paranoid ako ka-kaisip habang nag-aantay kami ng four to five days para sa COVID-19 test. Every day, lagi kong pinapakiramdaman ang sarili ko kasi may sore throat, headache, at sometimes masakit pa ang dibdib ko. Pero nagbabasa na lang ako at nagpe-pray na sana wala lang itong nararamdaman ko.

(I get paranoid thinking about how our COVID-19 test would turn out, waiting for 4-5 days. Every day, I always check myself because I feel I have sore throat, headache, and sometimes my chest hurts. But I just resort to reading and praying that it’s just nothing.)

Cordova said there was a day when the mother of a patient called the hospital after which the head nurse asked everyone who attended to that patient. “We were told to have a shower and were sent home. We underwent a 14-day quarantine and a COVID-19 test that, fortunately, came out negative,” she said.

EPISODES. Nenita Domingo Tuddao took medication and went on self-quarantine after experiencing symptoms. Photo courtesy of Nenita Tuddao

Overseas Filipino Warrior

Tuddao said she twice had episodes of sore throat, headaches, and body pains that she got after having close contact with what was previously termed as a Patient Under Investigation (PUI) and a Person Under Monitoring (PUM).

“I took my pain relievers, and a concoction of warm ginger, lemon honey, hot soup prepared by my husband and self-quarantined in my room, with just enough rest and sleep, and prayers. I was feeling good the next day… ready for another ‘battle duty.’ OFW yata ako (I am an OFW): Overseas Filipino Warrior!”

Tuddao, who comes from Makati City, is presently assigned to take care of long-term patients. “They are already family to us. Most are immunocompromised and I am afraid for them as they are vulnerable,” she said.

Very fulfilling

Gamiao, who hails from Tuguegarao City, said that at some point, the situation is “a bit scary because you could not see the virus.”

“However, being a frontliner, we all the more need to be strong  and confident in performing the duty as a nurse,” he said.

Joel Hualde, former FNAE president and current adviser, said that what’s keeping the confidence among nurses is their PPE.

It may be scary to be exposed to COVID-19 patients, he said, “but as a nurse, we have to wear our PPEs to be confident enough that we protect ourselves when attending to the patients’ needs.”

READY. Ritchie C. Pagkaliwangan says, ‘We are in a state of outmost readiness.’ Photo courtesy of Ritchie Pagkaliwangan

“The fear is there as always but given the right information and education about the virus and how to manage it, the worries are lessened,” said Ritchie C. Pagkaliwangan of Zamboanga City. He works at Sharjah Police Airwing Aviation’s operation department under the Search and Rescue EMS section of the UAE Ministry of Interior.

They are on standby for patients needing air transport.  “We are in the state of outmost readiness for any eventuality,” he said.

Thankful

Gamiao, meantime, said the UAE government has been handling the situation in a “very systematic and organized way.”

“The response is very quick. There’s a lot of testing being done all over the country. Health workers are provided with proper PPEs. Hospitals have isolation areas/rooms for COVID-19 patients. There are a good number of reported recoveries. The government is really very capable of handling this kind of situation,” added Hualde, who hails from Bacolod City.

As of April 19, MoHAP said the total number of COVID-19 cases from end-January, when the confirmed cases were first monitored, stands at 6,781. The sharp increase is attributed to aggressive tests being done across the emirates.

There were also 1,286 recoveries and 41 fatalities, MoHAP said.

Philippines

Meantime, the nurses said they long to be in the Philippines where they can be of service to fellow Filipinos and be with their loved ones, too. They lamented that they would not have been away had the government been more considerate of them.

SUPPORT. Michelle Bernardo prefers to work in the Philippines if only the government would provide adequate support for healthcare workers. Photo courtesy of Michelle Bernardo

“Of course, I want to help Filipinos. However, the government doesn’t value us that’s why we had to flee our country for places that value us,” Perez said.

Added Bernardo: “Mas gusto kong magsilbi sa mga kababayan natin, pero sana bigyan din ng gobyerno natin ng sapat na pagpapahalaga ang pagbibigay ng moral, emotional, at psychosocial na support sa aming mga healthcare workers para wala nang aalis pa ng Pilipinas at hindi na rin kami malayo sa mga pamilya namin.”

(I’d prefer to serve in the Philippines but I hope our government gives adequate importance to moral, emotional ,and psychosocial support to healthcare workers so that nurses won’t have to leave the Philippines anymore and be separated from their families.)

According to the Department of Labor and Employment’s Bureau of Local Employment (DOLE-BLE), an entry-level registered nurse receives a salary of between P3,500 and P8,000 per month working 12-hour shifts.

Registered nurses hired at hospitals commonly receive an average salary of P9,757 per month. In the government, the average salary per month is around P13,500 while in the private sector, the rate average is around P10,000 per month, also according to BLE.

Overseas, the pay scale is way above local rates with the US market offering an average salary of $3,800 per month, the United Kingdom with £1,662, and Canada with $4,097 for entry level, still according to BLE.

Tuddao, meantime, said she wants to go back to Makati because  the hospital emergency room where she used to work at has been experiencing lack of staff. The same with Quismundo who said her town in Laguna needs more healthcare providers. Manalo said she worries about her two children and mother.

The UAE government has stepped up its drive against COVID-19, even having extended a 24-hour sterilization of Dubai for another week. Meantime, it continues to rely on the populace for their cooperation and the frontliners for their unrelenting commitment to make its plan against the coronavirus work. Rappler.com