Providing the world with hope

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - January 2, 2021 - 12:00am

2021 is underway and a lot of people are wishing each other a better year than the last – kicking 2020 out of the way with a flourish; but the virus catching like a fire around the world has no concept of time or space. It burns through calendars and borders.

Hope for a better year isn’t really about the 12 months ahead, because COVID-19 doesn’t care what our plans are and doesn’t know what a year is. Hope resides in the human heart, not just in the emotion of wishing for something, but because the only way the coronavirus will be beaten is if we look after each other – every single one of us, wherever we are. That’s a message coming loud and clear from the new emerging breed of Philippine heroes. Not politicians, writers, beauty queens or warriors; they are women and men who lead by example, patience, humor, kindness and effort. They are migrant workers increasingly being recognized around the world in the places where they’ve made their homes.

On the last day of 2020, the traditional government New Year’s Honors List of outstanding people and their contributions was announced here in the United Kingdom. Among them was Charito Romano, originally from Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, now a mother of three working as a staff nurse at a residential care home near London, who was awarded the British Empire Medal “for services to Nursing Care Home Residents during the COVID-19 Response.”

“It is the finest moment of my career,’” Romano told me that afternoon.

“Charito embodies the values shared by the whole team and selflessly accepts the award on behalf of her whole team,” according to her boss, Jonathan May, the manager of Arbrook House care home. “(She) rallied her team to do everything necessary to keep her residents and colleagues safe during the pandemic. Charito and her team continue to put the residents first by ensuring that the impact of the coronavirus restrictions is not felt by the residents. Throughout the pandemic, she has rallied the team and led by example.” Their 42-bed facility managed to stay COVID-free throughout 2020.

As COVID broke out, the government was scrambling to protect the public, prioritizing the state-run National Health Service and leaving residential care homes short of essential guidance and resources. Romano explained that she had to take on a lot of extra work and responsibilities that were not her job, but she didn’t feel she could refuse because it would have put residents at risk.

“We implemented video calls, made sure that we had enough personal protective equipment at a time when there was no supply; we even purchased our own from Amazon for one pound each use. But it’s worth it, look: we are zero COVID,” Romano said. “It was really a team effort. If not for them, I won’t be anything! I was lucky in this home, the team supported me, the manager trusted me and how can you not work hard? It was really tiring but I think today all the tiredness of my body went away!”

This recognition comes as the UK’s health care system is coming under even worse pressure than during the worst of the first pandemic wave in March and April. Ambulances are forming lines outside hospitals because they can’t cope with the unprecedented numbers of patients. Hospitals in London are having to send patients to other parts of the country.

“It’s extremely busy. Most of the staff is exhausted because we haven’t had a break since the first wave. Also we have staff who don’t have COVID itself but most of the relatives have it, so they need to isolate and most of them are worn out,” Minnie Collantes Klepasc told me. She received the British Empire Medal in October and is a matron and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network lead, in Bournemouth; she’s originally from Pasig, Manila.

Like Romano, Klepasc says the important thing is the team, her community and the culture of support. “When I received the award I said it’s not for me, it’s for everyone really who works above and beyond and also all the people who work in the health sector all over the world, especially in the Philipines,” she said. “I think for us it’s not just a job – I help them so they can help others… it’s like a ripple effect, we can all help each other and then we can be in a better place.”

“We are raised in a country where we need to cope, whatever the condition and situation is, and I think we embrace that life is hard and we need to stand up, we need to survive. We are survivors,” said Romano. She told me how much support she’s got from three close Filipina friends who also work in care settings, her three children and husband Ronnie who is a senior care assistant at another care home, her brother and sister who also live in England and other friends that live nearby.

Fifty-eight Filipino nurses and health care workers have now lost their lives in the course of their work, five of them in the last few weeks of this recent surge and a more easily spread variant virus.

“Four of my friends have died of COVID. They are the true heroes, working exposed in hospitals. We have to protect ourselves, be safe and I’m begging people to stay safe, stay away, stay home so that this variant will not spread even quicker,” Romano adds.

“There are so many lives are at stake, we’re putting our own lives at risk here to look after people,” sighs Klepasc.

The sheer volume of patients with COVID-19 is overwhelming, according to Francis Fernando, head of Nursing at the Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust and founder of Filipino Nurses Association UK. The group is encouraging members to get their COVID-19 vaccinations, and also look after their mental wellbeing. Fernando fears that with the relentless pressure, at some point people will burn out and take long periods off work to recover. “We are in a mess and I don’t know when we are going to get out of this,” worries Fernando.

We may not know when these troubles will pass, but Romano, Klepasc and Fernando are showing us how to get through them and providing the whole world with hope.

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