NEW YORK — A provincial board member of Batangas once described a true Batangueno as resilient, dynamic, family-oriented, and prayerful. Another, an advocate of Batangas culture and tourism, characterized Batanguenos as brave, kind, and adventurous. Perhaps, as a nurse who hails from this province in Southwest of Luzon, Philippines, two more attributes can be added: caring and determined.
Marites Songco, an Operating Room staff nurse at the Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, is most likely described by her friends and colleagues as having such qualities. She hails from San Luis, a town formerly known as Balibago, because of its proximity to the Balibago River, which separates San Luis from Taal. Local townsfolks called it as such because of its ever-changing course; in vernacular, it means “pabago-bago.”
Upon entering the town, huge, tall fields of sugarcane seemed to bow and greet visitors. The municipality has a unique set of customs and traditions. Folks celebrate its patron saint, Saint Louis, on August 25 – which falls on the same week of Tes’s birthday. Fiestas, just like every town in Batangas, people have fun, make memories, and have a rare culture of their own.
There’s a tradition in San Luis; they call Tumba as part of their practice every All Saint’s Day — November 1, steal candles. They do not steal candles in exchange for money but use them to form a pyramid. They dance around these candles as a unique way of commemorating those who have passed away. Tumba originated from the sort of Festival of Light and Candles.
A journey to a thousand miles
Tes, the youngest of seven siblings, remembers these from her hometown, where she spent her youth. In high school, however, she said she and her brother stayed in a dorm outside of San Luis.
Her brother, the third eldest, is a medical technologist. She grew up with him, and she was fascinated with his white uniform and how he enjoyed his work. “So, I took up nursing, myself,” she said, graduating in 1989 from the Far Eastern University. She worked for 14 years at the Hospital of the Infant Jesus in Sampaloc near the University of Santo Tomas at its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) as a stepping stone to becoming the Head Nurse Operating Room (OR) years later.
Despite the economic advantages of working in the U.S. compared to the Philippines, Tes said her motivation to pursue a nursing career had little to do with the money. When asked why she decided to work in the U.S., she said it was not for economic reasons but more to gaining more experience and traveling to America where her peers wanted to go. With that goal, she took her first step to a journey of a thousand miles.
But it was not easy and smooth. It took Tes six years after she filed her paperwork and complied with all the requirements before she finally received her work visa. She almost lost her patience, but with her determination and faith, in 2012, she had a boarding pass bound for New York. Tes and six other recruits arrived on balmy weather in late August.
Up to that time, they were strangers but formed a bond of friendship as they traveled to a new environment and culture. Adapting to modern society is not the easiest thing to do, especially when encountering loneliness and homesickness. Still, they and the other Filipino nurses who came before them overcame their fears and apprehensions and became productive nursing staff members.
She also had applied to Canada and was approved at the same time as her U.S.’s. But it was an easy decision for her to make. Unlike in Canada, Lincoln Memorial Hospital was waiting for her. Also, she did not have to take up additional courses to get her license.
“I am thankful that my ordeal was over and my dream came through,” Tes told the Philippine Daily Mirror. She recalls being offered free housing for three months when she arrived but lived with her aunt in Manhattan when she started work late October.
Direct and upfront
Tes is in her early 50s, which she did not hesitate to say. She was direct and upfront with her responses. A true mark of a Batangueno, one would surmise. “No beating around the bush,” she said during an interview. Her son, Patrick, who turned 23 this year, is an Emergency Room staff nurse at the Manila Doctors Hospital. Her daughter, Patricia, is in her junior year in college studying marketing. They visit Tes in the summer and winter.
She said her husband, Edgar, a Fine Arts graduate at the University of Santo Tomas, is very supportive of her decision to work abroad even though it meant being away from her children with their schooling.
Unlike newly arrived nurses, Tes did not have to go through a medical/surgical unit on her first assignment; Tes was with the Operating Room (OR) – the same job she had at her former employer. She has been the team leader of the night shift for three years now.
OR staff nurses were less exposed to COVID patients, Tes said. “But we treat all our patients as positive when they come to the hospital. We never know if they’ve been exposed,” she said. They admit them directly to the OR “with just enough staff to avoid exposure.”
“Even wearing N95 and proper PPE, most nurses, even myself, and our anesthesiologist got sick and became COVID-19 positive,” Tes said. “In the recovery room, where I was also assigned, COVID patients, especially those at risks, some did not make it. The experience was so depressing and it broke our hearts.”
COVID-19 is a pandemic disease she could not have imagined to experience. “The virus is so deadly that it is like we are in a war zone but we cannot see our real enemies. It is so contagious that affects all – physically, emotionally, financially, socially and spiritually.”
As nurses, she said that they are dedicated to their profession and cannot stay home. “We have our oath,” Tes said. “We protect ourselves by wearing PPE, washing our hands often, and observe social distancing. We must also tell others what to do to avoid the spread of the virus.”
As an OR nurse, her unforgettable experience is when a patient almost died. “We managed to revive the patient,” and credited the OR team for that. “A good team is an important element in a difficult case,” Tes said, “without it, the patient is compromised.” Panic plays no part in the training of a nurse.
Family, travel and community involvement
Tes is not all work, though. She makes sure to take off her mind of it whenever possible. In the summertime, she and her family have traveled to Europe, the Middle East, and several states in the U.S. She also enjoys going out with her friends and colleagues on her time-offs on weekends or attending community events.
She also cares about her community and has volunteered to raise funds for several organizations in some outreach and activities. In 2018, she was Mrs. Kalayaan Philippines of the Philippine Independence Day Council, Inc. (PIDCI) She is also involved with Kasamahan ng mga Pilipino sa Westchester Atbp, Inc. (Kapwa).
Tes has shown all the qualities of a Batangueno, more so in her profession as a nurse for 30 years. It takes a nurse to be resilient, diligent, family-oriented, prayerful, brave, kind, adventurous, caring, and determined.
Tes is mindful of maintaining work-life balance, calling for a nurse’s full demands and responsibilities. Like other nurses who spend their time dedicated to humanity, Tes ensures her patients receive high nursing care standards. They even go beyond measures to facilitate healing and rehabilitation.
William Osler, a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital, once said: “The trained nurse has become one of the great blessings of humanity, taking a place beside the Physician and the Priest.”
Such is Tes Songco’s life and work experience thus far. From San Luis, Batangas to Manila to New York and all other places globally, she has traveled near and far, enjoying what life has to offer. But more importantly, in “service to humanity as the best work of life.”
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.