Outside Elmhurst Hospital.
NEW YORK CITY – The blaring sirens of 21 ambulances with flashing red lights filled the street outside Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York – a gesture equivalent to a 21-gun salute to honor a Filipino hero who lost his life at the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus.
Dozens of friends, coworkers and other medical professionals who call themselves the ‘Hurst crew’ (Elmhurst Hospital crew) came out for the “siren salute.” It’s their way of saying goodbye to 58-year-old Erwin Lambrento, an ER nurse who, in a way, sacrificed his own life so that others may live at the epicenter of the US pandemic — New York City.
Memorial for Erwin Lambrento.
Lambrento succumbed to COVID-19 at the Mount Sinai Hospital earlier that morning of May 9.
Coworkers described him as a stalwart on the night shift and the “king of triage.” He was respected by his peers for dedication to his work.
His nephew, Ernesto Jon Ebuen, was among the last few people to visit Lambrento while he was fighting for his life at Mount Sinai.
“I never knew how he touched so many people until I saw the prayer vigil that they did for my uncle… all the retired nurses, doctors, EMT, firemen, police, staff, went over there,” Ebuen said, “It pains me that he’s not able to see how much people loved him, respected him and appreciated him.”
Ebuen said, “He risked his life in the service of helping, caring and saving lives of people he doesn’t even know, and putting his own life in danger.”
Lambrento was a physician in the Philippines who became an ER nurse when he migrated to the US decades ago.
Ebuen made a promise to himself to keep Lambrento’s legacy alive by paying it forward in life — by helping others without reservation — just like what his uncle did.
A ProPublica analysis of the recent U.S. Census data showed that 1 in 4 Filipino adults in the New York and New Jersey area work in the health care industry.
Filipinos at the front line know what it’s like battling an invisible and unknown disease where the infected people are dropping dead in hospitals, as many as 2,000 dead in one day during the peak of the infection in New York City.
Operating room nurse Patrick Singson works the floors during the apex of the infection in New York.
Patrick Singson said he has never seen anything like this before – where body bags piled up in refrigerated trucks and hospital hallways.
Healthcare workers may call their workplace a medical war zone, but Singson said Filipino nurses are made for this worst-case scenario, adding that their experience and training in the Philippines helped prepare them for something like this.
“Palaban ang mga Pilipino, hindi kami sumusuko. Wala akong naririnig na reklamo sa kanila, yung ibang lahi diyan, nag-quit na, pero yung mga Pilipino, solid kami,” he said.
(Filipinos are fighters. We don’t give up. We don’t complain. Others would have already quit. But the Filipinos, we’re a tight group.)
The Filipinos stayed. That’s why they have been called heroes without capes; instead, they wore N95 masks and scrubs in emergency rooms and ICUs in different cities around the Tristate area because they don’t just give up.
But they were also the first in line to fall.
Dr. Leo Dela Cruz
In the North East Coast alone, in the 10 states covered by the Philippine Consulate General in New York City, Consul General Claro Cristobal said, among the 94 reported victims of Filipino descent who died of COVID-19, 40 of them worked at the front lines.
Among those who died is Filipino-American physician Dr. Leo Dela Cruz. He was treating COVID-19 patients at CarePoint Christ Hospital in Jersey City when he got infected. He died last April 7 at the Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey.
Two days earlier, 60-year-old Daisy Doronila, a single mom and a nurse who worked at the Hudson County Jail in nearby Kearny, died of COVID-19 complications on April 5.
For two decades, Doronila worked as a nurse at the county jail until she got infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted a day after Doronila passed: “She was a single mom, lived in Nutley, and a proud member of district 1199J. She gave tirelessly to her family and community.”
Also among healthcare workers who died is a Fil-Am couple married for 44 years.
68-year-old Alfredo Pabatao was a medical transporter for 18 years at a hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey. He may have been infected with the virus after transporting a COVID-19-positive patient and had a flu-like symptom before his sudden death in March.
His wife, 64-year-old Susana, worked as an assistant nurse at a long-term-care facility in Paramus, New Jersey where she may have contracted the virus because of lack of personal protective equipment or PPE. She was admitted to the hospital on March 23 and died on March 30. They died four days apart.
The hardest part is not the fact that the couple’s COVID-19 test results came back too late–after their death. But what was heartbreaking for their daughter Sheryl and her brother was they couldn’t even hold a funeral or memorial service. They were not even by their side when they passed because of isolation precautions. Their parents, separated at the hospital, died alone. They were both cremated.
The same story is told by many Filipinos who lost a loved one to COVID-19.
Fil-Am Peter John Dario said that he never even had the chance to hug and kiss his father goodbye when the older Peter Dario died on March 19.
The Quezon City native succumbed to an “unknown disease” (unconfirmed disease) at that time while on a respirator at the Hackensack Meridian JFK Medical Center.
His COVID-19 test results, in which he tested positive, came only after his death.
His father died alone because of hospital restrictions to contain the outbreak.
“I wish I just spent more time with him, you know, I’m a busy person,” the younger Dario said, “Because I was busy, I just wish I made up all that time, just talking to him, spending more time, taking vacations together.”
Peter John and his father, Peter Dario.
The younger Dario said, his dad left a legacy of positivity, putting family and others first, and a heart full of generosity.
“We had a garbage collector. Every week, he would give him empanadas (meat pies) just because, you know, he thought everybody deserves recognition; it doesn’t matter what position they hold, it doesn’t matter who they are, you know.”
The battle versus COVID-19 is not yet over.
Filipino healthcare workers who survived or did not get infected are still at it on the front lines, battling the virus that has infected more than 5.5 million worldwide and killed more than 350,000 people on earth. In the US alone, out of the more 1.6 million infected, more than 100,000 have died due to COVID-19.
In New York City, ICU and ER nurse Lorena Vivas is among the Filipino front liners who have saved many lives.
ER nurse Lorena Vivas.
“I stepped up to volunteer simply because it’s my job, I’ve been an ICU and ER nurse for more than 20 years,” she said, “Everyday, people go to work, risking their own lives for others, why should I seek an exemption, ‘di ba?
But the truth is, Vivas could have asked for an exemption.
Her thoracic scar is a reminder that about a few months ago, she battled cancer and almost lost her life.
“I was diagnosed with malignant thymoma sometime in November. By the second week, I went through a procedure called sternotomy, you can still see the scar, binuksan ang chest ko. (They opened my chest.) They had to take out the malignant tumor,” Vivas said.
Earlier this year, the cancer survivor chose to go back to work as a nurse and risk her life to save others amid the coronavirus pandemic. She worked on the front line at the Mount Sinai hospital in New York, with hundreds of other superheroes in scrubs and N95 masks working together to defeat COVID-19.
“I feel good that I stepped outside my own concerns because of other people. I think that’s what makes us good citizens,” Vivas said.
Meanwhile, in Patterson, New Jersey, Advanced Practice Nurse Janine Duran Llamzon is leading the charge among front liners at St. Joseph’s hospital.
“It hasn’t been easy for all of us. New Jersey has been badly hit, and so has our hospital. We’ve seen a lot of patients with respiratory symptoms,” she said.
In New Jersey, there are over 150,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 11,000 COVID-19-related deaths.
For Filipino front liners at St. Joseph Hospital, despite many challenges in battling this pandemic, they say, they are in this fight for the long haul.
Frontliners at St. Joseph’s Hospital in New Jersey.
James Alcid, Resource Nurse at St. Joseph, said, “The staff at St. Joseph is fighting very hard, 24/7, fighting this virus. I have never seen this amount of unity, dedication between healthcare providers to protect the health and well-being the community.”
Dr. Espana, a pediatrician, said, “We are all here to help combat this virus.”
Elizabeth Robles said, “We got this.”
Thank you, frontline heroes!
For these Filipino healthcare professionals, the road to recovery is not going to be easy for both the victims and the front liners, but one thing’s for sure, giving up now is definitely not an option.
From doctors to nurses, Filipino-American healthcare workers have become prominent warriors in the war against COVID-19. Some have lost their lives in doing so, while others continue to work at the front lines, sometimes putting their own lives at risk, but always carrying out the duty they signed up for–to save as many lives as they can.
This story was part of the COVID-19 Reporting Fellowship project with NJ ethnic and community media from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.