[FRONTLINERS] Homesick young doctor steps up to fight coronavirus

[*Editor's Note: We are using "they" and "their" as the preferred pronouns of Dr Del Prado based on: Nonbinary pronoun 'they' named Merriam-Webster's word of the year.]


At 25, Jeprel del Prado is a young, new doctor who just passed the Physician Licensure Examination in September 2019. Tired after finishing medical school, Del Prado opted to take a year off from residency and first applied to be a general physician or a hospitalist at the 
Hospital of the Holy Infant Jesus (HIJ) Medical Center in Sampaloc, Manila. But Del Prado was not given time to rest, as they* were suddenly pushed to the front lines against the novel coronavirus disease pandemic. Del Prado is longing to return home to Pangasinan, but they* insist on staying in Manila to continue saving lives. They* even started a donation drive for HIJ when stocks of protective gear, medical supplies, and food started to dwindle. This is the story of Dr Jeprel del Prado, told in their* own words. 

I am Dr Jeprel del Prado. I am a fresh passer of the Physician Licensure Examination last September 2019. I am currently a general physician or a hospitalist at the Hospital of Infant Jesus, where we handle the Emergency Department, the COVID-19 Ward, the Clean Ward, and sometimes the Hemodialysis Unit as well. 

Of course we cater to COVID-19 patients but we cannot neglect the other patients who also need our services – those undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis, and pregnant women due to give birth. We still have to cater to them. So we divided the hospital in half. The COVID-19 cases and the other patients with other concerns use different entrances and elevators.  

Every day, we have to don our personal protective equipment (PPEs). We need to stay clean, do misting, use a UV light, and take all those extra measures just to make sure we would not cross- contaminate anyone. We need to keep everyone safe.  

We currently have 4 COVID-19 patients and two of them are actually doctors. One is a pediatrics patient, a 6-year-old child was just transferred the other day to our COVID-19 ward. But in the emergency room, we still cater to patients under investigation (PUIs) who are mild cases as well as clean cases. Most of the other hospitals in the area of Sampaloc, Manila are already overcapacity. So most of the patients go to us for consults since we’re the only one available.

When patients come in, I am the first in line to look at them, although they are admitted under our infectious disease specialist Dr Daisy Tagarda. The decision to tell them if they are positive for COVID-19 falls on her shoulders. 

When patients arrive in the ER [emergency room] and we tell them they have to be admitted because they are PUIs and need to be isolated, they would tell us, “Doc, I might not be able to go home. I hope I can still go home. I still want to see my family.” We tell them that we are going to take care of them. We are their family for now. And anything they need, anything they want, they should just tell us and we will do our best to take care of it.  

There are usually two doctors on duty for the Family Medicine Department – a resident and the other one is a general physician or hospitalist like me. Our residents are usually of old age already. They are in their 40s or their 30s and they have co-morbidities. Even before the lockdown, we started catering to COVID-19 patients already. In our hospital, it’s the doctors like us who take the patients’ swabs. One resident took the swab of our first patient who later turned out to be COVID-19 positive.

That doctor already had hypertension and diabetes, and he soon developed sore throat. He had to undergo quarantine and was not able to take the patients’ swabs anymore. His quarantine period is over now. He is okay, but he is now afraid to go back to the hospital. He asked for a leave because his diabetes is uncontrolled and he could expose his family, most of whom are elderly like his grandmother and his wife. There’s always that fear of infection. 

In our ethics as doctors, we have this saying that if your life is in danger, you may opt not to serve. That’s the dilemma with our older physicians. Younger physicians like me have no co-morbidities and our immune systems are stronger. So we are the ones who are most needed to go on duty, to face the COVID-19 patients. 

I started to step up after hearing Dr Tagarda, thinking of ways how to help the hospital, because we’re just a small facility. We are in dire need of PPEs and food. Even just one patient needs a lot of supplies. Our nurses do not go home anymore.

There’s a partition in our COVID-19 Ward and that’s where our nurses go to sleep. Dr Tagarda needed to protect us, workers. I heard her saying we needed to raise funds. She already has a lot on her plate since she’s taking care of 30 plus COVID-19 patients in 4 different hospitals in Metro Manila. That’s too much already.

I decided to step up by doing a callout and kicking off a donation drive. It was done mostly by word of mouth. My brother also helped me make a poster. I posted that on my Facebook wall. My friends reposted it. Then people suddenly contacted me. I’m very grateful to everyone who donated, who contacted me to make a pledge because it’s such a big help to us. Our nurses, our janitors, and our guards are overjoyed. 

Now, it’s exhausting because we have to don our PPEs and then you have to make sure you and other health workers don’t get sick. It’s very difficult. If one of us gets sick, it’s possible our hospital would need to stop operating. 

Physically, emotionally, mentally, it was draining. I used to live with my brothers. But when the lockdown was declared, my mom picked them up here in Sampaloc. We really live in Pangasinan but my brothers, who are studying here in Manila, live here in the Sampaloc area for now. 

When they announced the lockdown, I was still on duty at the hospital. My mom came all the way here. She picked up my brothers first so they could all go home. She came to me at the hospital. She hugged me. She said she wanted me to go home. But I said no. I told her, “Ma, I can’t because we’re only a few doctors left here. If I choose to go home, I cannot serve. No one would be left to go on duty. I have to stay and help.” 

That was the last time I saw my family before the lockdown. I have been living here alone, going about my duties. It’s better this way because if I go home, I might infect them. At least I only have to worry about myself here.

They keep convincing me every now and then to go back. They can pick up me up, they said. But I keep on telling them, “I have to do this.”

They know how risky it is for me so they just give me daily reminders. They tell me to take a bath as soon as I get home, to wash my hands every now and then. They call me two to 3 times a day just to check if I’m okay. I am the eldest, and my brothers want to be future physicians, too. They are very supportive of me and they just give me reminders too. They tell me they look up to me and they want the same thing in the future.

Our hospital management is also having a hard time right now, money-wise. We lost a lot of sources of income. Fewer patients are coming in. We perform fewer surgeries. Of course it’s hard for everybody. But their support is there. There’s no perfect management after all. But they’re very open to communicating with us. I personally talk to them when I have concerns. They provide us with food. We’re in the process of making adjustments to give the proper salaries and benefits to our nurses, because they really are the ones helping out and handling the patients. 

Fortunately, we were able to send recovered COVID-19 patients home already. One patient was even able to go home before his birthday. It’s a very big deal that he was able to survive and we’re very thankful for that. Coming in, they really thought they would not be able to survive because of the high mortality rate of COVID-19 in our country. 

Actually, we cry whenever a patient recovers. Many of them are relatives of the doctors among us. We’re very thankful, we’re very happy. Every time that happens, it boosts our morale and makes us realize that this is worth it, that this fight is worth it. 

I got into medicine because of the passion to serve. I didn’t have any plans to be a doctor. Unlike others, I didn't dream of becoming a doctor when I was younger. It was only when I was in 4th year college when I realized I wanted to do more. I wanted to know more and serve more, because it’s different when you’re seeing patients already. It’s different when you get to see them go home and improve their lives. The assurances from doctors bring comfort to families. Even if their relative dies, as long as you are able to explain what happened well and you are able to bring them some comfort, they’re very thankful. It helps them a lot. What keeps me going is really the passion to serve my fellow Filipinos. – Rappler.com

Editor's Note: Rappler interviewed Del Prado on April 8, 2020. All quotations have been translated to English.

If you wish to donate cash to the Hospital of the Holy Infant Jesus, you may deposit to account name Jeprel del Prado through GCash number 0927-9247898 or BPI Savings number 3099 161 875.

Del Prado is also helping to raise funds for the Pangasinan Provincial Hospital and other hospitals in Dagupan City. Donations can be deposited through the BPI Savings account of Maria Audrey Tang with account number 9979 0608 63, BDO account of Divina Borja with account number 00116 0375 419, and Gcash account of John Armand Aquino with account number 0916-6816770. 

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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