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A frontliner’s fight is also her family’s

By VIANCA GAMBOA

My sister was all packed Monday morning, ready for her weekly shift, when she got the call that she tested positive for Covid-19.

The first thing I did was hold it in. I’ve been writing articles circling around the pandemic for two months, even trying to interview someone an hour before we got the news, so it was an everyday routine to dwell on all of the disease’s uncomfortable facts. I’ve written enough tribute for doctors who have sadly succumbed to the disease. She was high risk, I knew, even with the PPE she wore at work—and we should have seen it coming.

An hour later my dad was escorting her to the ambulance and my mom was crying hard.

On the front line
Mickaela,
or “Ate Mick,” as the whole family would call her, is a 25-year-old nurse at UP-Philippine General Hospital. She is the eldest in the family.

Ever since the community quarantine started, she had been working away from home. She was reassigned to the Covid ward and intensive care only a few days after our dog died. I could only imagine her struggle to work under tense circumstances while grieving for our dog. It must have been a lot of internal fight.

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A week later, she was swabbed for Covid-19 and was asked to stay at La Concordia College on Pedro Gil, a makeshift isolation center for health workers converted by the Manila government. When a lot of her colleagues started leaving the isolation center after self-quarantine, she was asked to follow suit.

La Concordia College

La Concordia College isolation center

It never occurred to us it was a bad idea—we knew she had never been this exhausted in her entire life and she just wanted to come home.

With my sister around, our house was mostly just filled with banters of don’t-touch-me’s and don’t-come-near-me’s, and “subtle” distancing in close quarters. We tried to check for symptoms Ate Mick might be showing, and she made sure to never go out but, in hindsight, we realize those weren’t enough precautions.

We would still watch Netflix together side by side, eat on the same table, act as if doing the bare minimum would save us when, in fact, they were counterproductive. It didn’t help that we thought that her youth would have spared her from getting infected. Imagine the look on our faces when we found out she was asymptomatic.

These cases are not rare—almost 50 percent of carriers are asymptomatic, according to CDC—and they impose a greater risk due to the unwitting process of transmission. They seem presumably well, but they could be infecting people with weaker immunity.

Hell week
The first couple of days after Ate was confined were tough. I had seen the cases rise, with my sister, one of the frontliners in the battle, reduced to a statistic in a daily pubmat news update.

In those moments I realized, that while there is enough recognition that puts our frontliners on a pedestal, I don’t think even that will hold weight once they find themselves in the throes of a war they’re not ready for.

We would video call Ate Mick almost two times a day to check on her condition and to somehow calm ourselves. These preemptory calls would give us the distraction to shift the focus from our household and what precautionary actions we might take prior to our scheduled swab tests.

We resorted to organic and natural remedies that Facebook pointer-outers, like me, would highly frown on. My younger sister, Yam, and I were both skeptical about the idea, but we decided it was the least of our worries.

My dad would prepare a homemade salabat drink and I would try to sit still so I could drink it without choking. We also took turns doing the traditional suob, a steam bath therapy that rids your body of harmful toxins like allergens and mucus from lungs through sweating, for 30 minutes each day. Diving headfirst into another traditional regimen, we were bedbound for the rest of the day with no electric fan, no air conditioner on, with windows unshut, and heat index at its peak to avoid pasma and just let the sunshine in.

My insomnia also kicked in, harder, at the time. I was diagnosed in the third week of the lockdown after I called a virtual doctor and told her about anxiety, sleep deprivation, and stress. She suggested melatonin, and to take a week off from work. I had only followed the latter when my sister got diagnosed, because everything became too much to bear—the mental images of grief were broad as daylight. In the middle of the night I would also find my younger sister trying to hold back tears.

The whole family only got tested Thursday morning at Delpan Quarantine Facility and it went by really fast it felt like a drive-through, but the waiting game wasn’t. Time moves differently when you wait. At that point we’ve stopped bathing in our own sweat, trading milk tea for ginger tea, but you could almost feel the palpable tension in the air as we waited for an unrecognized number to call. It went on for a week.

The social distancing scheme in the same house sounded tricky too, because it didn’t feel contrived at all.

And then there was the fear of getting the most vulnerable ones hurt. In our case, my dad has asthma, my mom has insomnia (they’re both in their 50s), and, I, as they would say, was very weak—everyone tried to look out for each other. We were on autopilot: My mom would stow the vitamins on the TV rack with alcohol bottles rolling on the floor, and my dad would forget he had already given us our first dose. Each one of us had shown different symptoms like coughing, sneezing, difficulty in breathing, even something as simple as throat-clearing, but thankfully, none of us had fever. Placebo effect aside, we were pretty convinced that our ”traditional” efforts worked. We were just waiting to get slapped with the hard truth.

Coming home
It was Saturday when my dad stormed into our room crying out of glee. Apart from the positive news that we tested negative, it was the first time I’ve seen my either passive-aggressive or deadpan father this happy. It was also the same day my sister called us and confirmed her recovery from Covid-19, which would immediately discharge her from the hospital. A string of phone calls later, I had given my mom the right to dismiss it outright as a miracle, thanking God and the traditional medicines we had tried over the past weeks.

To cut the story short, my sister went home to “Fight Song” booming from our street’s announcement speakers and the neighbors clapping from their balconies. It felt out of place and surreal, even with a tacky song playing in the background.

This pandemic isn’t just about the diagnosed, the PUIs, the health workers—it’s about those fearing for their lives, frontliners’ families left behind, the loss of safety, the poor, undetected people walking the streets, anger because of helplessness, searching for meaning in the darkest times, facing something bigger than ourselves, our mental health.

The disease left us unscathed (at least, for now, but we’re extra careful this time) but as we were at our peak of frustration, paranoia, and anxiety, it could have killed anyone of us. What I honestly learned is that, in times of fear and uncertainty, let these feelings pass and push yourself to take control. Do what you can to survive, protect the vulnerable, and have the courage to wait behind your door for the world to recover.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/06/04/a-frontliners-fight-is-also-her-familys/)

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