Marks from our masks

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

(First of two parts)

“I just went through a horrendous time in my career. It’s like someone going to battle without knowing what or who you’re fighting against; and you don’t actually have anything to protect yourself and the people that you care about,” said May Parsons, Philippine-British matron who administered the first shot that launched the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination program.

On the same day that the UK looked back on the year since its first lockdown, Peter Bacalso died from COVID-19. He is thought to be the 75th Filipino health care professional in the UK to have succumbed to the virus. He was a leader of the Filipino community in Dorset and is being mourned by family, friends and colleagues. His death is also testament to the extraordinary courage and sacrifice that Filipino nurses and other workers continue to bring to the National Health Service (NHS).

I am dedicating today’s and Tuesday’s column to them. Through this year of life in a time of coronavirus, Filipino nurses working here in the UK were posting pictures of themselves as they came off shift, relieved that they’d made it through, but not knowing what the next day would bring. Lines and marks, left by their face masks, signified the stress and toil of the long shifts caring for people sickened and dying from the coronavirus.

Their stories and images touched fellow nurse Susi Lagrata and inspired her to reach out to these colleagues. “I was so surprised that nobody even mentioned the marks, everybody was just talking about what it means for them,” remembered Lagrata, who is national secretary of the Filipino Nurses Association UK. On their website, she hopes her series “Marka ng Maskara” highlights the amazing work of the Filipino nurses. “The news was all about this disproportionate effect of COVID deaths of Filipinos, but nothing about the dedication and hard work of the Filipinos. Why were we dying? Why were we being exposed? Because we just keep on prioritizing others before ourselves. I’m hopeful I was helping them to release that emotional pain, maybe it will be cathartic for them because they are able to release pent up emotions. Most of all I wanted to show how much work and contribution the Filipino nurses are giving to the NHS.”

The response was positive, so Lagarta suggested taking the project to the next step: holding an online health and well-being forum based on the series. It was held last Sunday. Nurses who were featured in the series spoke about their lived experiences, followed by an open forum where everyone could share and learn from each other.

“I just arrived here in the United Kingdom last December 2020. There’s a real feeling that I am now living the dream, but my faith was tested when just two months after arriving here I lost my mom,” said Angelique Tenorio, who spoke first at the forum. She shared her feeling of helplessness and the huge toll that the pandemic had taken on her. She couldn’t go home because of the quarantine protocols, her voice breaking as the tears came when she spoke of her pain. “I prayed that even just in my dreams I could hug her, say goodbye and say that I love her so much.”

At the same time, Tenorio’s team was shifted to a high dependency unit to manage the people who acquired COVID and needed close monitoring, equipment to breathe and to stay alive. Despite her own grief and the extreme stress of the situation, Tenorio said that being a new nurse in a new environment who was quick to learn new things and techniques was a great help to take care of patients, whom she still wanted to be discharged from the hospital so that they would see their loved ones. “What I’ve learned during this pandemic is never ever doubt yourself, always seek God’s guidance, wisdom and courage,” revealed Tenorio. “Keep moving forward, have a positive attitude in all situations and always believe in your dreams: they were given to us for a reason.”

As the online meeting continued, the tears continued to flow. It was a unique insight into the lives of the people who are coping with the sharpest edge of the coronavirus pandemic. Filipino nurse leader May Parsons, famous for injecting the first jab in the world’s first mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19, explained how her experience is making her concerned for the future. For the “Marka” project, Parsons said that the deep marks on her face represent pain and acceptance. “It’s nothing compared to the pain I feel whenever a colleague or a patient succumbs to the disease.” At first, Parsons said all she could think about was the fear of actually contracting the disease and passing it on to her family. At the same time she wanted to support her staff. “As a leader I had to show them all the strength that I could muster on the day to show them that actually it is OK to be fearful of things, but not let it rule your world,” she said.

“Professionally it has affected me in a way that as a leader you have to be able to show your support and compassion to staff who are experiencing the same fear and anxiety as you, but how can you give that strength to them? There’s no manual to say this is how you lead in times of uncertainty and lots of death happening around you. You have to rely on your own resilience, on your own personal strength and you dig really deep in order to show that you can overcome the fear of the unknown. Now I’m trying to preempt the staff’s needs. In the respiratory unit, they’ve been looking after the COVID patients for so long. I’m trying to preempt the time when it all stops and then, everyone would realize, ‘Actually I had to go through all that trauma, what do I do now?’” (To be continued)

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