Filipino American caregivers reflect on COVID trauma and healing : Shots

Left to right: Filipino American health care workers Karen Cantor, Karen Shoker, and John Paul Atienza were among many who cared for COVID patients in the early days of the pandemic.

Rosem Morton


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Rosem Morton


Left to right: Filipino American health care workers Karen Cantor, Karen Shoker, and John Paul Atienza were among many who cared for COVID patients in the early days of the pandemic.

Rosem Morton

In the spring of 2020 Glenn Magpili, 42, got sick with COVID. The first wave of the pandemic had flooded New York area hospitals and Magpili, an emergency room nurse in Manhattan, fell ill in the same hospital where he’d been caring for patients sick with the coronavirus. Then, he was intubated.

“When I woke up, I thought I was just asleep for a couple of days,” he recalls. “They told me it was almost four weeks.”

Magpili recovered but counts himself “one of the lucky ones. There were so many Filipino nurses who got sick,” he says.

I work as a nurse, too — I was born in Manila and immigrated to the U.S. with my family when my mom was recruited to teach here. I was 16. My interest in caring and service led me to nursing; my interest in storytelling led me to photography.

For Filipino Americans like Magpili and me working in all aspects of health care, being so close to a new and devastating virus in the early days of the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll.

Filipinos and Filipino Americans make up just 4% of registered nurses in the U.S., but account for nearly a third of all COVID-related deaths among registered nurses, according to one study.

The history of Filipino nurses working in the U.S. goes back many decades as Americans established U.S.-style nursing schools in the Philippines during the U.S. occupation and colonization of the early 1900s. When the U.S. has faced nursing shortages after World War II and more recently, Filipinos have answered the call.

And it’s not just nurses. Doctors, respiratory and physical therapists and other health workers from the Philippines have come to the U.S. for medical training and jobs. When the pandemic happened, I knew my Filipino community would be heavily affected. Many of us ended up on the front lines caring for critical COVID-19 patients while watching colleagues and family members fall sick.

I want Filipinos to be seen beyond the statistics. I want people to see their faces, hear their diverse stories and learn about their sacrifices. It is important. These are people who have always contributed to the health and wellness of this country.

Here are some of their stories from the first devastating surge in New York City — and how they made it through. We’ve edited the conversations for length and clarity.

Bea Leal
Bea Leal

Dr. Bea Leal, 33, internal medicine physician

I grew up in the Philippines in a family of doctors. My mom, my mom’s sisters, my cousins and my

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EXCLUSIVE | Healing New York’s forgotten: How one Harlem medical team brings health care directly to the city’s homeless

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Living rough on the street comes with all kinds of health risks. Sleeping beneath cardboard and atop thin blankets during both the hottest and coldest nights of the year can take a dreadful toll on the human body, and when the biggest concern on a person’s mind is when (or if) their next meal will come, a doctor’s visit is left low on the agenda.

This is where the Janian Medical Care of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS) prides themselves on their work.

Operating out of a clinic on 198 East 121 St. in Harlem, the healthcare workers also travel around the city in search of unhoused individuals who may need medical attention. As a one branch of CUCS, Janian employs nurses, nurse practitioners, and more who supply medical services to those in shelters and individuals who call the city streets home.

“We will frequent certain hotspots. If it is a group of people in Tompkins Square Park for example, we will go to that spot in some kind of semi-regular way. But we mostly get referred people by the outreach teams who have already had some contact with that person,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Van Yu explained.

The mobile examination room. Photo by Dean Moses

amNewYork Metro joined the street med team on Oct. 25 as they rode through Harlem offering medical services. The team operates out of a specialized van that serves as a mobile examination room where individuals can be treated in a private, sterile environment.

Led by an outreach team member, nurse practitioner Bonnie Coover and driver Justice Marin followed in the van to locations where they believed their rough-sleeping clients were staying.

During the ride, Coover explained, trust between the team and those in need is paramount — without which many homeless individuals refuse to receive aid.

“There’s varying levels of trust, whether they’re open on the first visit to draw blood, listen to their heart, some people are like that first thing. Other people it takes a long time, a long time to earn that trust. A lot of people have had anywhere from a bad experience to trauma with the healthcare system, especially a lot of the people that we see who have serious persistent mental illness, you know, they may have been hospitalized against their will. So depending on how they feel about medical people in general, it takes us time to build up that trust,” Coover said.

Bonnie Coover speaks about her work while visiting patients. Photo by Dean Moses

The first attempt at a wellness check showcased just how tricky it can be to visit patients without a permanent address.

Coming across an empty encampment, the team was forced to move on. However, Irving, a man who has claimed a small patch of a Harlem sidewalk, was found presiding over his meager belongings.

The
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