Celebrating nurses during Filipinx American History Month

Heavy toll on Filipinx community but fighting spirit helped others survive

October is Filipinx American History Month and a time to celebrate the contributions, resilience, and fighting spirit of Filipinx nurses in the United States. Registered nurses are the backbone of our health care system and Filipinx RNs have played a crucial role in this nation’s nursing workforce and in providing patient care during the pandemic. Unionized Filipinx nurses have been outspoken advocates for their patients, their communities, their fellow RNs, and for the labor movement.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, nurses have held more than 3,000 actions — rallies, pickets, press conferences, strikes — to speak up about unsafe working conditions,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN and a president of National Nurses United (NNU). “And Filipinx nurses have been on the strike line, speaking at actions, and letting the public know about our deep concerns about patient safety and our own safety.”

At Seton Medical Center in Daly City, less than 10 miles south of San Francisco, nurses had been waging a long battle against its corporate owners to keep the hospital open. One-third of Daly City’s population is Filipinx and the majority of Seton’s RNs are Filipinx. Gloria Lavitoria, an RN at Seton for 35 years and Triunfo-Cortez’s friend of more than three decades, had been active in the fight to save her hospital, which serves predominantly low-income, medically underserved communities.

Seton Medical Center RNs protest on April 2, 2020

Seton avoided closure in March 2020 when Gov. Gavin Newsom designated the facility as a Covid hospital, leasing beds for Covid patients. The Seton nurses’ next fight was for personal protective equipment (PPE). In early April, they held an action to demand protections when treating Covid patients.

When Covid hit, Seton was unprepared and nurses had very limited access to PPE. N95 respirators were locked in the nursing office, which was located on the ground floor. “As a charge nurse, I had to tell my supervisor how many N95s I needed, sign for them, and bring them up to my floor,” recalled Lavitoria. “We got one N95 for an entire 12-hour shift.”

“My floor was converted to a Covid floor,” said Lavitoria. “Almost all of our patients on the floor were Covid patients. We were so short staffed so I was doing break relief for our nurses. Also at that time, no nursing assistant or housekeepers were allowed to enter rooms. So I was feeding a Covid patient for 30 minutes, bathing a Covid patient, mopping floors, and emptying garbage.”

Gloria Lavitoria at Seton Medical Center

Lavitoria was exposed to Covid patients as she was forced to wear the same single-use N95 and same gown during a shift instead of throwing them away and donning new PPE after each patient encounter. She also cared for a patient who tested negative and had been ruled out for having Covid. Lavitoria and other staff only wore a surgical mask in this patient’s room but then she noticed that they showed signs of Covid so she insisted that they be retested. The patient tested positive.

Less than a week after the nurses’ protest, Lavioria felt cold at the end of her shift. When she got home, she took her temperature and saw that it was 102. She had terrible body aches the next day and went to the ER where she tested positive. She was told she could be admitted or quarantine at home. She chose to go home but then her oxygen saturation dropped. She was scared that her husband and daughter would get Covid, but luckily, they did not test positive. Her family took her to the hospital and two days later, she was intubated.

After two weeks at Seton, doctors told her family there was nothing more they could do for her. But her family refused to accept that and got her transferred to UC San Francisco where other treatment options were available. During the ordeal, she suffered through hallucinations and nightmares. But Lavitoria fought for her life. Two weeks later, she was discharged from the hospital and was able to go home. Since then, she has been doing physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez and Gloria Lavitoria

Triunfo-Cortez is so grateful and happy that her friend survived. But as the first Filipinx leader of a national union and an RN for more than four decades, Triunfo-Cortez was very aware of the disproportionate impact of Covid on Filipinx Americans, particularly nurses and other health care workers as documented in NNU’s March report Sins of Omission. Earlier this year, she participated in a panel, “Why Filipino Americans Count: A Conversation on Disaggregated Data,” and spoke about NNU tracking RN deaths throughout the pandemic, noting that FilAms were 4 percent of nurses but accounted for nearly 25 percent of RN deaths. “Filipino nurses have been on the front lines of Covid, caring for Covid patients and putting our lives at risk when our employers did not give us the protections we needed,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “This is why NNU fought for and won the first federal Covid-19 emergency temporary standard. This Occupational Safety and Health Administration ETS is now in full effect.”

Lavitoria is thankful to be given a second chance at life. She got through her experience with prayer groups and support from her nurse colleagues, family, and friends. She had to learn to walk again but told herself to have faith and think about the future. “I was expecting my first grandson when I came out of the hospital. He was born on August 31, 2020.”

Jessica Lavitoria (daughter-in-law), grandson Matt, and Gloria Lavitoria

“I’m proud to be a Filipino nurse, especially at the hospital where I work,” said Lavitoria, who has worked with the same people for years. “We know how to speak for ourselves. If we see something that’s not fair, we speak up.”

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.