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.
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.
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 sister are in medicine. We don’t know how to …….