Janet Buclay-Cannilla: When the heart beats again — A Special Report on “Nurses: Their Calling in Service to Humanity”

by Ricky Rillera

NEW YORK – Filipino nurses are not just about caring for their patients at the hospital, they are also a rare breed that cares for their family and the community they live.

U.S. poet Maya Angelou said something true about anyone like a nurse, who has that attachment who they care for and love. She said: “As a nurse, we have the opportunity to heal the heart, mind, soul and body of our patients, their families and ourselves. They may forget your name but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

In times like the COVID-19 pandemic the world is now confronted with, Filipino nurses have responded and risen above their calling, when with their choice, they opted to care for their patients notwithstanding their own safety – rushing to save lives. Their belief to serve humanity has proven time and again, using their their knowledge, skill and experience.

It is not enough to not only call them heroes or pay tribute to their heroic acts but also to honor and memorialize those who have fallen in a war like soldiers serving and fighting for their country – fulfilling their avowed role in society.

2020: The International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

With this year’s World Health Organization’s (WHO) designation of 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the Philippine Daily Mirror has launched “Nurses: Their Calling in Service to Humanity Project.” Our goal is to know them and make known their work. We interviewed several nurses for the work they continue to do. They come from different regions in the Philippines and from the metropolitan New York tri-state area.

All of them are known to this writer but they will be featured in this publication in a manner chosen by the staff of PDM and not because of friendship, involvement in the community or anything else.

Our first in this series begin with Janet Buclay-Cannilla, a wife, a mother, and a registered nurse for almost 40 years who has served in three countries and continue to practice her profession at the Veterans Administration Medical Hospital (VAMH).

Janet Buclay-Cannilla: “When the heart beats again

Janet Buclay-Cannilla | Contributed Photo

It was not exactly an Aha-moment when Janet Buclay-Cannilla decided to take up nursing as her profession. It was more of a “gut” feel driven by curiosity and encouragement.

She was born in Baguio City, about 263 kilometers north of Manila and known as The City of Pines and the summer capital of the Philippines. Janet was raised by her father Hilario, a military man, and her mother, Magdalena.

While she was growing up, her father used to bring her with him to work — not only to let her see what an hospital is all about but also as the “daddy’s girl.” She was always amazed at the sight of nurses who walk by in the corridors and who she came to know. They wore crisp, white uniform with their nurse’s cap neatly tucked on. Perhaps, this is what convinced her into being a nurse herself, she said. “Their neat, ‘all-white’ immaculate presence who tend to patients,” Janet recalled.

For her, those trips to where her father worked at the elite Philippine Military Academy Station Hospital (PMASH), was the beginning of a journey that made her the first and only nurse in a brood of eight children. After obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from the St. Louis University and her license, she was excited to venture into her first job. She took her Master’s in Nursing in New York while working at the VAMC.

A fresh, exciting start

Janet at PMASH
| Contributed Photo

As a private nurse to a sick teenager boy, she took care of him until he lost his battle to cancer. It could have been a traumatic experience for her but it exposed her early on in her career to be compassionate – a true mark of being a nurse. She took this episode in her nascent career in a professional way and with her faith in God, she found peace and comfort dealing with it.

As a staff nurse at the PMASH, she gained more confidence, knowledge and improved her skills and after 2 years, she left for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the medical staff of Gizan General Hospital.

Janet at Ginzan Medical Center in KSA | Contributed Photo

“Those are 38 long years working as a nurse in three countries,” she told the Philippine Daily Mirror. Today, she is with the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manhattan as a Community Health Nurse Coordinator/Case Manager. From one military hospital where she first learned her practical skills into another one in the heart of Manhattan where she said, she might be retiring from in a few years.

She is looking at her early retirement together with her husband, Michael, who she met at the hospital when she first arrived in the U.S. After all, Janet said, her daughter Krista who is also a nurse and her son, Michael Jr., who is with the U.S. Navy, have a family of their own. She would like to spend time with her “(apo[s])” (grandchild) especially Ellie, her first granddaughter.

Coming to America

Coming to distant shores of America was somehow an encouragement from her friends in Brooklyn, New York while vacationing from Saudi. They convinced her to seriously consider moving here. She accepted their challenge and passed the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) exam at her first attempt. Not all nurses who take the exam at one instance make it. For a Filipina nurse to find a job in America in the 80’s or earlier decades was not that difficult as it is perhaps now, she said.

Janet (third from left) with her fellow nurses at Lutheran Medical Center when she arrived in the U.S. | Contributed Photo
Janet (left front row standing) with Medical ICU at the VA Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY | Contributed Photo

“God do answer prayers, I am blessed,” she said. Janet is deeply ingrained with her Christian faith having been involved with the Youth With a Mission (YWAM) during her youth and even when she settled in New York. YWAM, is a missionary organization founded by Loren Cunningham in 1960 from New Zealand and had its missionary presence in Baguio. Janet is also active with her church, the Disciples of Christ Ministry, where she holds a key leadership role.

Somehow, she still supports YWAM through one of its pastors, who was a fellow WYAM volunteer then. The pastor is currently undertaking a project similar to what Mercy Ships do. YWAM’s motto “Know God and to make Him known” has not left Janet’s heart and mind.

Within six months of having her paperwork processed to move to New York, she began her assignment at the Lutheran Medical Center in its Medical Surgery (Med-Surg) floor with Peritoneal Dialysis unit for two years before she was assigned to Critical Care, a unit which she still likes because of its function in hospitals. She said most of her nursing experience is in the critical or intensive care area.

With 10 years wealth of experience, she was accepted at the VAMC to work at its Cardio Thoracic Intensive Critical Unit for her new journey and received several citations as Nurse of the Month from her employer.

Janet (far right) with medical staff at the VA Medical Center in Manhattan. | Contributed Photo

The surge of COVID-19

With the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, New York was the epicenter in its early stages which had the greatest number of infections and death. Nurses and other health care professionals were at the front lines even at the risk of their own lives. “Nurses were plunged overnight into a desperate struggle to save lives,” Janet said. “Hundreds of health workers were affected with the disease.”

Janet receiving recognition for her 20 years of service at the VAMC. | Contributed Photo

Janet has been a nurse for almost 40 years and has not seen so much death. “I’ve known friends who got affected and survived, and others who did not make it,” Janet lamented. She was at the thick of the AIDS crisis then but this was nothing compared to COVID-19, she said.

“This coronavirus-19 is rapid and vicious. It affects you physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is the deadliest I have ever encountered,” she said. “As a critical nurse I hate to leave my patient alone when they are dying and due to the nature of this virus, some are left alone to die.”

When asked what a nurse should do during critical times or life-threatening situations to protect herself, her patients, and the public, she said, “think of Universal precaution.” “When you see a patient that needs help, use your PPE (personal protection equipment) before you touch and help the patient.”

Although she did not experience to be at the bedside of a COVID-19 patient, she was coordinating care for them once they are discharged to go home and need skilled home care services.

When the heart starts to beat again

Her most unforgettable experience as a nurse is when she went to the operating room (OR) for her orientation for the Cardiothoracic ICU. “I saw how the surgeon opened the chest of a patient with the heart exposed during an open-heart surgery,” Janet recalled. “What is amazing is when the heart starts to beat again.”

Dining with the family to celebrate an occasion. (L-R): Krista, daughter; Janet; Michael (husband) and Michael Jr. (son) | Contributed Photo

After nearly four months, New York seemed to have quieted down with fewer COVID-19 cases. Janet hoped it would stay that way. As an essential worker, she keeps busy now catching up with paperwork and coordinating cases of veterans who are getting treatment for either the COVID-19 or non-COVID patients requiring “normal” intervention on their behalf.

“We don’t know what the future will bring,” Janet said. “We all have our calling. I have the joy of Jesus, my Lord and Savior, the loving care of family and friends, and the gift of eternal life. I have learned to be content all these years despite all the challenges we face every day.”

Added Janet: “This COVID-19 pandemic will pass. When the heart starts to beat again, that is the reassurance of our hope in a God that loves us. He holds our future.”

Related articles:

Marilou G. Bugarin: I’m Here for a Purpose — A Special Report on “Nurses: Their Calling in Service to Humanity”

Myrna Young: Making a Difference — A Special Report on “Nurses: Their Calling in Service to Humanity”