‘The pandemic, it changes you’
Nurse among many Filipinas following life calling to Winnipeg, finds COVID-19 devastating
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2022 (369 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
April Intertas is overcome with emotion when she recalls the life-or-death moment she realized her calling was a career as a nurse.
As she helped to deliver a baby boy at a hospital in the Philippines, the newborn emerged with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, making it impossible for him to breathe.
Instinctively, Intertas, who was doing her student practicum, put her fingers between the cord and the infant’s neck, allowing him to take his first gasps of air.
Once he was out of danger, the boy was placed into the arms of his grateful mother, who wept as she asked Intertas to name him. The name Jon Christopher popped into her head.
“I felt really privileged. Who would ask a stranger to name their baby?” Intertas, 33, said. “We shared this precious moment together. I won’t forget that in my nursing career.”
A few years later, that calling brought Intertas to Winnipeg, where she has been on the front line of Manitoba’s fight against COVID-19.
The registered nurse has cared for critically-ill patients in a coronavirus red zone. Staff have been there for patients who died without family at their bedside.
“That’s probably the hardest experience I’ve ever had,” she said, fighting back tears. “The pandemic, it changes you.”
For decades, Manitoba has been turning to countries such as the Philippines to address staffing shortages in health and long-term care.
Hundreds of women and men from the archipelago in Southeast Asia have brought their expertise to the province through recruiting drives, family sponsorships or other channels.
For many who make the journey, nursing offers a gateway to a better life and an opportunity to provide financial support to loved ones back home.
Their contribution over the decades has been tremendous, and many second and third generation Filipino-Canadians are following in their footsteps.
Before the pandemic, the Philippine Nurses Association of Manitoba had about 300 active nurses, including Intertas.
“Wherever you turn your head in a hospital (in Manitoba), you won’t miss a Filipino nurse,” said a Philippines-born nurse, who asked not to be named.
“Wherever you turn your head in a hospital (in Manitoba), you won’t miss a Filipino nurse.” –Philippines-born nurse
Traditional family values and a culture that instils respect and care for the elderly make health care a natural career choice for Filipinos.
“Growing up, it’s in our culture that the kids take care of their parents at home as they get older,” said Intertas. “It’s very natural for us to take care of someone.”
Hailing from the municipality of Subic, her father enrolled her in a nursing school without telling her.
Intertas arrived in Manitoba in 2013 after three years as a nurse in the Philippines. Half of that time was spent at a government hospital, where she worked purely for experience and received no salary or benefits.
Intertas then worked at a private hospital until her sister sponsored her move to Canada. However, she had to wait three years to work in Manitoba due to the language, training and certification requirements she had to complete.
“As an immigrant here, I imagined myself working as a nurse right away, and helping my family back home,” she said. “My patience got really tested. I almost gave up. Nursing is my passion, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Seeing people of Filipino origin working at every level in hospitals fills Dr. Gigi Osler with pride.
“It not only makes me feel quite proud to be half Filipino, but to see how that community is contributing more than ever to keep the health-care system going,” she said.
As a child in Winnipeg, she was surrounded by family who worked in health care. Her mother, Flor Sharma, a nurse, arrived from the Philippines in 1966 in one of the first waves of recruitment.
“I grew up seeing the hard work, care and dedication of Filipinos in health care,” said Osler, former head of the section of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at St. Boniface Hospital.
“My patience got really tested. I almost gave up. Nursing is my passion, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”–April Intertas
She was the first woman of colour to become president of the Canadian Medical Association, a role she held in 2018-19.
Despite Canada’s huge Filipino population, it lacks doctors and specialists from that background.
“We know just by looking at the numbers Filipinos are underrepresented in medicine,” said Osler.
In April 2021, she took part in a roundtable discussion — hosted by the Toronto-based Filipino Association of Medical Students — that explored barriers and potential solutions.
Medical organizations are making an effort to eliminate biases and racism, change culture and, ultimately, “level the playing field,” said Osler.
Health-care workers from abroad must overcome several hurdles, including significant costs, before they are permitted to begin working in Canada.
For internationally educated nurses, they are first vetted by the National Nursing Assessment Service. They must pass an English exam and a competency assessment once they arrive in Canada.
In Intertas’ case, she completed those steps and moved on to a 10-month bridging course at Red River College Polytechnic.
She had to wait 18 months to begin her training because there was so much demand for the program at the time.
After graduating, she had to re-take her English exam because the results are valid for only two years.
The final step was passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), clearing the way for her to start practising in Manitoba in 2016.
Manitoba’s government has faced calls to speed up the process in order to remain competitive with provinces such as Ontario.
Some get discouraged and leave Manitoba for provinces where the process is faster, said a nurse, who is originally from the Philippines.
To those going through the process, Intertas’ advice is to “hang in there.”
Last year, Manitoba said it would add about 400 nursing education spaces. It also pledged to offer up to $23,000 per nurse to cover the cost of everything from training to child care.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Monday, January 24, 2022 10:47 AM CST: Corrects that Dr. Osler is former head of the section of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at St. Boniface Hospital
Updated on Monday, January 24, 2022 11:03 AM CST: Clarifies reference to new nursing education spaces.