Monday, January 22, 2007

Life and the hospital: A head nurse at PGH recalls the struggles of her life

by Gideon Lasco

WHEN WE came to her one Friday morning, all eyes were on the political crisis: the president declares a ‘state of emergency’, a general gets arrested. But in the Philippine General Hospital, life goes on. No strike is possible; the men and women toil day and night, ceaselessly. The public hospital is a community of heroes, trying to heal the nation while its leaders inflict painful wounds.

Life goes on – this has been the theme of Mrs. Luningning Siarez, head nurse of the Community Medicine OPD. As her name suggests, she has a bright and ebullient personality. Approachable and talkative, like your regular ninang. She looked old for a 49-yr. old; the wrinkles of stress has weathered her face. But when we approached her, her eyes shone. As if she – head nurse of the busiest hospital in the land – had nothing else to do, she sat down and talked to us. Then her story began to unfold before our eyes.

A family of ten

Mrs. Siarez was born in Pasay City, a daughter of a driver and a housewife. Her father took the gargantuan task of breadwinning for eight children. Good thing he landed in the employ of Sen. Arturo Tolentino, but the pay wasn’t enough: to see the girls through college, the boys worked while they studied; a pig was sold and a parcel of land mortgaged.    

Sometimes, our narrator pauses – another nurse enters and reports to her. Affairs of the hospital perhaps? After all, she holds the title of ‘Chief Nurse’ and has her own office, but this, as she tells us, was hard earned. After all, she has been working at the PGH for twenty-three years!

She adds that her life back then was boring: “school, home, and church” – those three summarized her daily routine. “It’s only here in PGH that I experienced an outing – at the beach!” she exclaims.

‘My husband went to Saudi’

After surviving the hard, knock life as a youth, Mrs. Siarez was to realize that married life is even harder. Their honeymoon was still fresh in her mind when her husband had to go to Saudi to earn a living. There, he stayed for five years. “Of course it was a hard and lonely time for me,” she said. “But was there any choice for us?”

Then, from the husband’s dinars and riyals, they got themselves a small home in Calamba, Laguna, and a taxicab for her husband, but it was a hard life: as a taxi driver one has to wake up at 4 AM, and sometimes get assaulted by thugs. Instead, Mr. Siarez became an air-con technician.

Tears of a mother

It was when we asked about her family that her nostalgia turned into sadness. Mrs. Siarez told us that she earns around P18,000 as a head nurse, while his husband nets P7,000 because of so many deductions. They have a daughter enrolled as a nurse in Manila Doctors’, and the rest also studies in college and high school. All in all, the cost reaches around P80,000 per semester. “We can only afford two things – education and food. That’s all,” she sighs. “We had an insurance plan, but look at what happened. It’s all wasted,” she adds, referring to the education insurance crisis a year. “My parents give support to the kids, so does my husband’s employer”. But these, she says, are not enough. “My poor son – he may have to stop studying because we really can’t…”

She pauses and sheds some tears.

Still thankful

Countless tales, like hers, are easy to find. Just go to the streets, to the wards: the patients, doctors, nurses – everyone has a story to tell. These are tales of our people: their struggle to live in a poor country such as ours, their struggle to fulfill the needs of their loved ones. Mrs. Siarez told us that she dreamt of going abroad, but she is resigned to the fact that this is an impossible hope. “I don’t hold a grudge against life. When I see the squatters that we visit, I thank God that I am still better off. I’ve taken care of the terminally ill patients here at PGH for more than two decades, and I’m thankful that I’m still strong, that I’m able to see my kids grow. I guess that’s all.” She manages a smile.

A 49-yr. old mother, working at the hospital, struggling to give her sons and daughters a ray of hope for a bright future. There are many stories in the PGH like hers. And they are not happy ones.

January 2007