Till their last breath, Fil-Am health care workers give all vs COVID-19

Camille Elemia

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Till their last breath, Fil-Am health care workers give all vs COVID-19
At least 60 Filipino health care workers have died from the novel coronavirus disease, as the United States continues to grapple with the pandemic

ARIZONA, United States – Even in pain and imminent death, Filipino-American (Fil-Am) health care workers – among the frontliners in the US’ fight against the novel coronavirus – refused to stop serving and caring for their patients.

An estimated 4% of nurses, around 150,000, in the US are Filipinos. In some states like California, the concentration is even higher at 20%.

A 2016 census also showed that of the more than 200,000 international doctors in the US, 6% graduated from the Philippines, ranking third after India and the Carribbean.

ProPublica, a non-profit, independent news outfit in the US, reported that Filipino-American workers “have suffered some of the most staggering losses” in the pandemic. 

In the New York-New Jersey region alone, the epicenter of the virus in the US, there have been at least 40 deaths of Fil-Am health care workers to date. There have also been at least 20 deaths in other parts of the country. The numbers do not include workers’ families, who were also affected by the virus. (READ: Surviving COVID-19: How a Fil-Am nurse and his family fought coronavirus at home)

As the US struggles with the pandemic, these Fil-Am medical workers also continue to risk their lives. As of May 10, the US records the highest number of reported cases in the world – nearly 1.4 million.

ProPublica shared this database with Rappler.

Most, if not all, of these health care workers left for the US to earn a living for their families. Some of them were already retired but decided to go back to help in the fight against the virus. Many of them have left behind grieving families who could not properly mourn due to the pandemic. (READ: Filipino nurses: The world’s frontliners vs the coronavirus)

Mama Guia, the head nurse

Maria Guia Cabillon, 63, was the head nurse of Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York. On top of this, the 5-foot-tall and feisty Filipina, known as “Mama Guia” to her colleagues, also worked fulltime at New York Community Hospital.

“She works in the emergency room. She likes working, that is her joy. She did not complain. She made sure her staff had their own personal protective equipment (PPE),” Cabillon’s daughter Fatima told Rappler in a phone interview.

“My mom has been my inspiration since I was little. I saw how hardworking, dedicated she was. She did not want to stop working. My mom always put other people first. She treated her colleagues as family.”

FAMILY. Fatima says her mother treated her colleagues at Kings County Hospital as family.

Cabillon had been working in the US as a nurse for 33 years. It was difficult for the family, as she left her husband and daughters in Iloilo to earn a living abroad. Fatima was just over a year old when her mother left, but after all these decades, Fatima said her mother never missed a year when she went home.

“Every year, she made sure she went home during summer time in the Philippines. She did not go to other countries. Because for her, she had to be away for 11 months, so she reserved one month for the family in Iloilo,” she said.

All of Cabillon’s 4 daughters became nurses, too. Fatima, now 34, and her younger sister April later joined their mother in the US. It was a happy reunion until the pandemic happened.

DAUGHTERS. Fatima and April, also nurses, joined their mother in New York. Photo from Fatima Cabillon

Cabillon and Fatima worked in the community hospital’s unit that takes care of COVID-19 patients. Working in the frontlines, Fatima said they were expecting that they would somehow contract the disease. But what happened the following month was unimaginable for the family.

In late March, Cabillon had fever. She dismissed it, as she did not want her children to worry. She just took a brief rest then went back to Kings County Hospital, where the emergency room was filled beyond capacity.

“Her fever never went away and she’s too exhausted. During that time COVID-19 was at its peak. Both of her hospitals were filled with cases. Every patient there was positive for COVID-19,” Fatima said.

Her mother had body aches and loss of smell and taste. But at the time, they weren’t sure if these were signs of COVID-19. It was only in April when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially included these in the list of symptoms. 

KIDS. 'Mama Guia' and her children at work. Photo by Fatima Cabillon

Cabillon was brought to the community hospital where she worked. She stayed there for two weeks.

Things got worse and she was brought to a bigger hospital with more advanced facilities. Cabillon was sent to the intensive care unit and was intubated for two weeks.

“My mom is a brilliant nurse. At the time, I think she already knew what would happen. Once intubated, there is a chance you won’t survive,” she said.

After only about a month, on the afternoon of April 26, Cabillon succumbed to the disease. Fatima said they were fortunate because the family in Iloilo was also able to speak with and bid goodbye to the matriarch.

“My mom’s only 63. She had no other illnesses, no hypertension, she was not diabetic. So for her to pass away like this, sometimes we could not understand why she was taken away so early. I guess she already did a lot here. We weren’t ready but maybe the Lord thinks she was ready.”

“We were very, very blessed because we knew a lot of people in the hospital. We asked permission if we could have a video call in the ICU. I asked my dad to say goodbye to my mom via messenger. My dad, the grandkids, everyone was all sad, but they were there to talk to her.”

Colleagues were also heartbroken. The “kids” paid tribute to their Mama Guia – the lone voice they relied on for instructions in the ER and often times outside of it.

Cabillon had always expressed a desire to retire in her hometown. Now, the daughters have one thing left to do for their mom: bring her home. This time for good.

Never say retire

Arthur Tayengco, 81, was an obstetrician gynecologist in Las Vegas, Nevada for nearly 50 years.

Described by his daughter Michele as “stubborn” and “passionate,” Tayengco practiced until COVID-19 made it impossible for him to do so.

Also an Ilonggo, Tayengco flew to the US in the 1960s for his residency. He was part of the faculty at the University of Nevada-Reno (UNR).

“He really likes kids, he really liked the thought of bringing a new life to the world…. Up until the end, he was no longer part of the UNR program but residents would still look for him for advice,” Michele told Rappler in a phone interview.

While he was unable to regularly go back to the Philippines, Tayengco still loved everything Filpino, especially food. In fact, Michele said every time they would eat out, her father would always choose to meet in Seafood City – a popular Filipino supermarket in the US.

The last time Michele and her father met was in February. She recalled him telling her and her sister about the gravity of the novel coronavirus, which was not taken seriously in the US then.

DEDICATION. Dr Tayengco worked as ob-gyn in Las Vegas for 5 decades. Photo from daughter Michele

“He said we should prepare that we won’t be able to go out for a long time especially if it spreads in the US and that we should have a stock of medicines in our cabinet,” Michele said.

It was then when Michele again asked her dad: “Isn’t it time for you to retire?” Tayengco, however, would not budge.

“It wasn’t just because of the pandemic. I would ask him that every now and then because he was getting frail-looking. He wasn’t slowing down. He basically said ‘It’s not time yet. I’m not yet done, what would I do with myself?’” Michele said.

Michele said her father also continued his weekly rounds at the women’s prison, where he is one of the medical providers.

“He did have an interesting contract with the women’s…he was one of the ob-gyn providers for the women’s prison. He probably kept his rounds up until the end. He would go there once a week until he couldn’t go anymore.”

In mid-March, Tayengco started having cough, fever, and loss of taste after two of his medical assistants tested positive for COVID-19. 

He self-isolated at home and hid his struggles from his family and colleagues. Michele said they only realized how bad the situation was when he asked to be brought to the hospital on April 5.

Michele said her stepmother also tested positive but is now recuperating.

“He was sedated and ventilated immediately. The best we could do was bid farewell through a call via WebEx. It was getting so bad so fast.”

The doctor spent more than two weeks in the hospital and was then transferred to hospice care on April 21. Shortly after – in the early hours of April 22 – he passed away.

“We were half-expecting that he would contract the virus because he wouldn’t stop working. He was stubborn like that. But at the end of the day, he did what he felt he needed to do. It’s still painful for us.”

Mama Guia and Dr Tayengco are just some of the Fil-Am nurses who gave their patients the Filipino brand of care until the very end. – Rappler.com

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a former multimedia reporter for Rappler. She covered media and disinformation, the Senate, the Office of the President, and politics.