Cecilia Yap-Banago was a registered nurse at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City. The 69-year-old mother migrated to the United States in 1970 and dedicated her life serving as a healthcare professional.
The five foot tall Celia is described by colleagues as a “little fireball” since she was known to work with speed and gusto in whatever department she was assigned to, be it the trauma unit or the critical care unit. It was typical for Celia to work 72 hours a week.
Celia was a woman of great empathy as well, said her colleagues. Not only did she care for patients as if they were personal friends, she cared for their families as well. She was known to spend hours explaining the condition of the patient to their loved ones and would even take phone calls from them during her rest days. She would update them on the patient’s latest test results and console them should the patient lose their battle. Her heart was as big as her talent.
Like most Filipino healthcare workers, Celia was the breadwinner of her family. Her son, Josh, remembers her as a demonstrative and affectionate mother. She loved to laugh and would often play practical jokes on her children as a show of affection. You knew she loved you if she was pranking you, Josh tearfully remembers.
Last March, Celia treated a patient who later tested positive for COVID-19. Due to budget cuts, Celia was not provided personal protective equipment since she was not working in an area designated for COVID patients. She got infected and spent her final days in isolation away from her children. Celia died on April 21 due to complications resulting from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, Alfredo Pabatao worked as a medical orderly while his wife, Susana, worked as a nurse’s assistant. The couple have been married for 44 years, with the last 20 spent in the US working as medical frontliners. They were loving towards one another, recalls youngest daughter, Sheryl. Alfredo would regularly come home with a bunch of flowers for Susana for no reason except to show his appreciation. The Pabataos were a loving family who derived strength from one another especially amid the financial and social challenges that come with being an immigrant.
Susana was an excellent nurse, say her colleagues. She was full of empathy, especially towards the elderly. She would treat aging patients with the same tenderness as her own parents. Somehow, she always had the right words to say and it always brought comfort to those she was tending to. She was a woman with a calm soul and it shone through.
Last March, Alfredo attended to a patient infected with COVID-19. He fell ill days later and was immediately put in confinement. Alfredo and Susana would communicate daily through FaceTime even when Alfredo was connected to a ventilator. Susana was his pillar of strength — she would encourage him to fight and be strong. For his part, Alfredo tried to show his bravado. In one of their FaceTime conversations, he attempted to do yoga poses to prove that he was recovering, recalls Sheryl.
But he could not fool Susana. She knew perfectly well how serious Alfredo’s condition was. In the privacy of her room, Sheryl would hear her mother sobbing through the night.
Alfredo died on March 26. Susana fell ill a few days after that. Her health spiraled down due to both the lethality of the COVID-19 virus and depression. She died a month after, on April 30.
Filipino healthcare workers are the backbone of the American healthcare system. In New York City alone, 34% of nearly 300,000 Filipinos are connected in the healthcare industry. In California, 20% of all nurses are of Filipino ancestry.
Filipino healthcare workers in America are dying at a 40% mortality rate, significantly higher than the 3.7% mortality rate of COVID-19 patients in the US, according to the John Hopkins Institute. This is due to their daily exposure to infected individuals and oftentimes, less-than-ideal safety conditions.
Evelin Weber, a Wall Street executive, philanthropist and founder of the Philippine Foundation, says that Filipinos are the soldiers in America’s battle against COVID-19. Often serving without personal protective equipment, these brave health workers have cared for 5.4 million infected Americans, 170,000 of whom have died. They are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly and without fanfare or complaints, to protect Americans from this terrible virus.
Co-founder of the Philippine Foundation and advocate of Philippine-American relations, Trevor Neilson, recognizes how Filipinos healthcare workers have set aside their own safety to help others. Many have died in the process. As a result, countless Filipino families have lost a father, mother, sister or brother, and many of them were the breadwinners of their families.
The Philippines Foundation, in partnership with the Los Angeles-based Manny Pacquiao Foundation, has recently established a fund to ease the burden of the families of fallen Filipino healthcare workers. The goal is to help 100 Filipino families with their immediate financial needs, whether it be to purchase food, rent, tuition fees and other such pressing necessities.
Apart from the seed fund that the Philippines Foundation and the Manny Pacquiao Foundation are providing, they are also accepting donations from concerned citizens. The more funds raised, the more families can be helped. Donations can be made through www.thephilippinesfoundation.org. All donations are tax deductible.
What is good about this initiative is that the donations go directly to the families of fallen Filipino healthcare workers who need it most. The Philippines Foundation also has a system to ensure that the funds go towards the basic needs of the family.
Families of Filipino healthcare workers killed by COVID-19 who have not yet been accredited by the fund can contact the website mentioned above.
Our countrymen abroad who work as medical frontliners live tough lives. They are exposed to this insidious virus on a daily basis and are dying at 11 times the rate of COVID patients themselves. The initiative of the Philippines Foundation to recognize and assist slain Filipino frontliners in America is both timely and a godsend. It deserves our full support.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist