Filipino-Canadian nurses among unsung heroes of coronavirus pandemic

Three nurses who continue to work despite high risks of contracting COVID-19, and a martial arts instructor who raised funds to purchase much-needed medical grade masks for healthcare workers and first responders, are among the unsung Filipino-Canadian heroes contributing to the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Mary Grace Ocampo, a pre-op nurse at the Montreal Neurological Hospital and president of the Filipino Nurses' Association of Quebec's (FNAQ) executive board, was the first in her unit to be called to the front lines.

"In the beginning, honestly, my fear was that I would get infected (with the virus) and give it to my family," she said.

But her desire to continue serving patients, along with a clear and consistent cleaning protocol to protect herself and her family, stamped out that fear, she said. 

Aside from rigorous handwashing at work, Ocampo and her family follow a strict safety protocol at home. She keeps her distance as soon as she arrives home, puts her scrubs straight to the washing machine, and takes a hot shower. Everyone in the family follows a frequent handwashing routine.

In the beginning, her 6-year-old daughter Lily Bell cried when she couldn't hug her mother right away. "That was painful. She would be so excited to see me and I would say, 'Don't touch me,'" said Ocampo.

For Aryanna Kassandra Perbillo, an operating room nurse at Glen Site pediatric in Montreal, the hardest part about working during a pandemic has been the mental stress.

While Perbillo doesn't work directly in a COVID-19 unit, she assists in life-threatening emergency cases that involve aerosol-generated procedures.

"You don't know if the patient is a possible carrier of the virus, so we have to have the full PPE," she said.

Being in a full personal protective equipment (PPE) – mask, gowns, boots, face shield and all – has also made it more difficult to provide the special care that one expects, especially from Filipino nurses who have a reputation for being hardworking and compassionate.

"As a nurse you advocate for your patients and you always think of ways to alleviate their anxiety. Before, we would smile and comfort them with therapeutic touch, but now we're in masks and we practice social distancing," said Perbillo.

New hospital guidelines that only allow one parent or guardian to accompany a patient who is a minor has also been difficult for families, she said.

Support, such as mental health counseling, are available for workers who need them, said Ocampo and Perbillo, but so far they have managed to get by with good old Filipino humor.

"You know how it is in our culture, no matter how big the problem is, we find ways to lighten the mood, to share laughter and smiles," said Perbillo. During breaks, "we do TikTok videos and share jokes just to de-stress and to be positive."

Access to PPE

While Ocampo and Perbillo count themselves lucky for having the PPE that they need, this hasn't been the case for other healthcare workers like Debbie Del Mundo, who works as a community nurse for Toronto's St. Elizabeth Healthcare. Nurses like her are given 20 non-surgical masks per week, or about 2 per day.

"I would say it's still reasonable, but technically we should be really changing masks for every patient we visit," she said.

"I don't mind working during the pandemic. I don't mind taking the risk in order to look after people. But I also have to look after my health because if I don't protect myself, how can I actually look after more sick people?"

Lack of access to PPE has been a thorny issue in Ontario, where more than 3,700 healthcare staff have been infected with COVID-19, or about 17% of all cases in the province.

About 91% of health workers have said they feel abandoned by the provincial government, and 87% said they do not have access to the PPE they need, according to a poll conducted among 3,000 staff by the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Ontario Council of Hospital Unions.

While Del Mundo doesn't work in a hospital setting, she nonetheless feels some anxiety when she goes in and out of patient homes.

"I'm not as exposed, but it's still scary," she said.

Like Ocampo and Perbillo, she and her family have developed their own safety protocol.

Del Mundo said she can't understand why Canada hasn't been able to produce its own PPE supply and has had to rely on an unstable supply from China.

"I mean, we're not a Third World country. We're one of the countries where we have advanced technology, especially with medicine and things like that," she said. "So, my question is, how hard is it for the government to work with community business owners to actually produce PPE?"

Community

As concerns over lack of PPE continue, JB Ramos, a martial arts head instructor at Combat Science, wondered how she could help, especially since she has friends like Del Mundo who work as nurses in the community and in long-term care homes, as personal support workers, and as members of the police force.

"We all feel vulnerable right now. But I didn't want them, the people who have put their lives out there, to feel that no one cares about them."

Since the pandemic had already forced many, including her, to work from home, it dawned on Ramos that she could possibly raise funds by teaching Filipino martial arts via Zoom. In April, Ramos put out the call for classes on the basic fundamentals of Filipino martial arts in exchange for donations to buy masks for first responders and essential workers.

About 40 people – from Canada, the US, and other parts of the world – signed up for classes that began in May, and Ramos raised $2,000.

She was surprised, she said, "at the amount of community that's actually out there and the real need for people wanting that interaction with each other, whether it's virtually or not."

The money raised was enough to buy about 1,700 medical grade masks that have since been distributed among frontline staff across the city. Recipients were "taken aback" when she delivered the donations, said Ramos,

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal, underscored the importance of recognizing the contributions of healthcare workers in the midst of the pandemic. (READ: 'I didn't want to leave the house': COVID-19 fueling anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada)

He noted, in particular, that Canada's healthcare system is supported by a lot of Filipino staff who work as nurses, orderlies, doctors, and pharmacists – a number of whom have been infected by the virus. In Montreal, "they basically sustain the English-speaking hospital sector," he said.

"We're concerned not only that they will get infected, but psychologically, the pressure will be very strong among members of the Filipino community. We haven't talked about that," he said. "We need to raise awareness that could also force unions to pay greater attention."

Niemi noted that the first orderly who died of COVID-19 was Filipino-Canadian Victoria Salvan, 64, who had worked as a patient attendant in a Montreal long-term care home.

"She knew the risk, but she wanted to help. We need to remember that. The devotion of a lot of Filipino-Canadians may not be recognized to the extent that they should be," said Niemi.

Salvan had worked as an orderly for 25 years and was remembered as someone who worked hard and loved her patients; she was only weeks into retirement when she died.

No regrets

Despite the risks, the 3 nurses – Ocampo, Perbillo, and Del Mundo – said the pandemic has not made them reconsider their career as nurses.

"It's my passion. COVID doesn't bother me," said Ocampo. She loves being part of a patient's journey – from diagnosis to surgery to recovery. 

Ocampo, who volunteers by teaching a review class for incoming nurses, said she often advises mentees to think of nursing as a calling.

"You can't just think about the salary, otherwise you'll burn out. It's hard work, but you will succeed if you love this profession," she said. "I treat my patients as my own family and that makes a big difference."

Ocampo, who has been a nurse for 14 years now, said her 3 children have never been more proud of her than now. "They see how significant the role of nurses is because of this pandemic."

Perbillo said leaving the profession "is not a question for me." Helping people offers rewards no money can buy, she said.

She recalled an occasion when a child who was in the hospital for a follow-up checkup went straight to her and thanked her.

"The fact that the kid remembered me, that was priceless," she said.

Del Mundo said receiving an email during the pandemic from the daughter of a previous palliative care patient who has since died made her realize what she loves about her job. 

The daughter asked how she was keeping safe, and thanked her for the care she had given to her father when he was alive.

"Despite the risks, I will still work as a nurse. I have no regrets," said Del Mundo. – Rappler.com

Marites N. Sison is a Filipino-Canadian journalist based in Toronto.