Seeing The History Of Filipinos In Nursing

15:47 minutes

an old black and white photo of six filipino nurses in nurses uniforms standing behind a desk and in front of an american flag
Red Cross nurses in the Philippines pose for a portrait in 1919. Credit: Fighting America’s Fight, 1919 Public Domain in Library of Congress

You may have seen a grim statistic earlier this year: 32% of U.S. registered nurses who died of COVID-19 by September 2020 were of Filipino descent, even though they only make up 4% of nurses in the United States. Yet an event like the pandemic is disproportionately likely to affect Filipino-American families: Approximately a quarter of working Filipino-Americans are frontline healthcare workers.

There’s a deep history of Filipino immigrants and their descendants in frontline healthcare work. This Filipino-American History Month, Ira talks to nurse and photojournalist Rosem Morton and freelance journalist Fruhlein Econar about their recent collaboration for CNN Digital, using photographs from Morton’s National Geographic-supported “Diaspora on the Frontlines project. 

They talk about the long reliance of the U.S. healthcare system on the Philippines, and the importance of documenting the lives, not just the disproportionate hardship, of these frontline healthcare workers and their families. 

a filipino man in a nursing gown, face mask, and gloves, stands next to a monitor in a hospital hallway
Marc Bontogon wears personal protective equipment before entering a patient’s room at Doctors Community Medical Center in Maryland. He works the night shift as a telemetry nurse. Taken on September 30, 2020. Credit: Rosem Morton
in a room next to a staircase, a filipino woman in a blue nursing uniform sits in a chair with her arm thrown over her head with her daughter also sitting in an arm chair and using a laptop. on the far left standing near the stairwell is an older lady, the daughter's grandmother, with hair curlers smiling as she looks over to her granddaughter
Leane Bulaong arrives at her home in Baltimore, Maryland early from her nursing shift so she can spend time with her two daughters, one of whom is a nurse visiting from Missouri. On Leane’s right is her youngest daughter, Jillian. She is on her laptop for a virtual nursing class while her grandmother watches. Credit: Rosem Morton
a filipino man in a nursing gown, face mask, and gloves, stands next to a monitor in a hospital hallway
In Bowie, Maryland, Elizabeth Grace Capadngan is worn out from her night shift nursing schedule. On her days off, she struggles to stay awake in the daytime. Her husband, Ernest Capadngan cuddles with her as she takes a nap. Credit: Rosem Morton

What You Said

We asked for stories from Filipino-Americans who work or have worked as nurses. Here is some of what they shared with us.

Jona C. from New York

A Filipina nurse in a blazer stands against a yellow wall
“This pandemic was brutal but those who survived appreciated life better and realized that no human is an island,” says Jona C. Credit: Jona C.

The day I saw my co-worker deteriorate during the day while I was working with her, I knew she had COVID-19 and therefore I was exposed as well…I was not asked to be quarantined for being exposed (to COVID-19)…I developed rashes for 5 days after I [was exposed]. I was having similar symptoms as my pediatric patients who were having multisystem inflammatory syndrome and required more aggressive treatments to survive…I did not have respiratory symptoms, but I feel to this day that I’m not the same and sharp after COVID-19.

I am still grateful to my five friends, who are also nurses and bravely came to my house to eat together and just bond. Later on, we used dancing as an exercise and formed a new organization to help other nurses in our area. This pandemic was brutal but those who survived appreciated life better and realized that no human is an island and humans are truly social beings.

A Filipino nurse in plain clothes smiles at the camera while showing his COVID vaccine card
“To this day, becoming a nurse has been one of the best decisions of my life,” says Christian F. Credit: Christian F.

Christian F. from New York

My Filipina single mother is a registered nurse herself of thirty years so her profession definitely left a mark on me growing up. I arrived to the United States from the Philippines when I was six-years-old and I saw early on the love that my mother had for her career. Despite how exhausted she evidently was after every 12-hour shift, she always seemed to look forward to the next shift. Her zealousness in her service towards the sick inspired me to also take up a path of service some day.

To this day, becoming a nurse has been one of the best decisions of my life so far. I have personally seen the power of nursing care in the lives of others…I remember that one night when ten of our patients died within three hours. I remember all the hands that held my hand as they took their last breath. I remember setting up video calling programs to allow family members to speak to their dying loved one for the last time. I remember not knowing what to do, or what to feel, or what to think. I remember thinking everything that we were doing was useless. I remember not being able to sleep for nights because all I could hear and see were the cries of families and the last tears that fell down my patients’ faces. I remember being afraid. I remember wanting to give up.

I remember. Those are the two words that encompass my life during the COVID-19 pandemic. All I can do is remember, but also to try not to. Visions of memories that will forever remain in my heart and mind. We truly have come a long way, and it has been beyond an honor and a privilege to be a part of that service.

Further Reading

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Segment Guests

Rosem Morton

Rosem Morton is a nurse and photojournalist of Diaspora on the Frontlines. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

Fruhelin Chrys Econar

Fruhelin Chrys Econar is a freelance photo editor based in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Segment Transcript

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