How 3 Filipino American Nurses Found Community on the COVID Frontlines

Photos of three Filipino American nurses.

Verywell Health

Key Takeaways

  • Filipino American nurses are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
  • Despite hardship, many Filipino American nurses are finding care and community among their family, friends, and coworkers.
  • However, some Filipino American nurses also wish they were given more public and institutional support.

Today, one in four Filipino American working adults are frontline healthcare workers. They often work in acute care and the intensive care unit (ICU), leaving them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Despite their work on the frontlines, Filipino American nurses are rarely given the support they need, Antonio Moya, MD, MPH, a Filipino American neurologist who’s a part of the Filipinx/a/o COVID-19 Resources and Response Task Force, tells Verywell. While many nurses were praised by the public for their heroism, the pandemic’s impact on Filipino American families and communities has largely gone unrecognized. 

Many Filipino American nurses are in their profession today due to U.S. colonial rule of the Philippines. In the 1960s, when the U.S. experienced a shortage of nurses, Filipino nurses were trained to work in the American healthcare system. 

Where institutional support fell short, families and communities stepped up to offer a helping hand. “The Filipino community has done its best to take care of each other and also the American community at large,” he says.

Verywell spoke to three Filipino American nurses who found care and community throughout the pandemic among their family, friends, and coworkers.

Family Support 

When Kate Naranjo, a nurse on Long Island in New York, went home sick on March 11, 2020, she wasn’t too concerned. Kate says she usually knows how to “nurse herself” back to health. Four days later, she tried to get up from her couch and felt a drop in her lungs. She couldn’t breathe, and later recalled it as one of the scariest moments of her life.

Kate was infected with COVID-19. In the two weeks it took for her test to come back positive, her sister became sick, her brother and her father were hospitalized, and her mother was intubated in the ICU. 

“I think the hardest part about it was it felt like I dragged everyone down with me,” Kate tells Verywell. 

Naranjo family.
Pictured top to bottom, left to right: Victor Naranjo Jr., Stephanie Naranjo, Kate Naranjo, Luz Naranjo holding Chunky the dog and Victor Naranjo Sr. Courtesy of the Naranjos.

Her brother, Victor Naranjo, is also a nurse. He tells Verywell no one suspected his sister had COVID-19—when he got sick, he thought he got it from the gym. 

“You try your best to avoid your family getting sick,” he says. “It’s not her fault.” 

When their mother Luz Naranjo—a 61-year-old nurse case manager who also works at Kate’s hospital—left the ICU, the Naranjo family organized a drive-by celebration for Mother’s Day. Kate, the lead organizer, thought it would be a small gathering. But when her hospital administration heard about it, many of her colleagues showed up, with local news trailing behind. 

“My coworkers are my family. I treat them like family,” she says. “After that experience, it just goes to show how you treat people and how you care for other people—they’ll care for you.”

For Victor, it’s difficult not to tear up when thinking about the Mother’s Day celebration. Gatherings with loved ones are especially important in Filipino culture, he says, and he missed seeing his friends and family. 

“One of my close friends’ dad passed away, and he went to the hospital almost at the same time as my mom,” Victor says. “He lost his dad, but I kept my mom. It made it that much harder that we couldn’t be together. Seeing everyone was uplifting. It was the one shining part of a really hard year for a lot of people.”

The Naranjos thought their mom would retire after recovering from COVID-19, but Luz went back to work a few months later in August. Kate, who worked in the COVID unit from April to August, says her mom’s dedication is reflective of many of the Filipino healthcare workers she knows.  

“Filipino nurses are relentless, COVID aside,” Kate says. “When we had a blizzard, my Filipino coworkers were the ones who showed up. We were raised to know that this is what we signed up for; this is what we came to do. I think this pandemic has really highlighted us. I feel pride seeing the people I relate to the most doing exactly what I hope that I’m doing. I saw that in my mom.”

Leaning on Coworkers

Mildred Castillejo is a nurse in Queens, New York. She speaks fondly of a retired nurse who used to bring homemade fried banana rolls (known as turon in Tagalog, spoken by about a quarter of the population in the Philippines) to the hospital.

Mildred Castillejo
Mildred Castillejo pictured on the far right. Courtesy of Mildred Castillejo

“She was a friend of my coworker,” Castillejo tells Verywell. “She was also Filipino, and Filipinos have a sense of community no matter what. So, everybody’s a friend. Your friend is already my friend.” 

One day, the retired nurse was rushed to the hospital with COVID-19. Castillejo says she knew in her heart that she wouldn’t make it. 

Castillejo says her coworkers tend to lean on her due to her “motherly” nature and status as a former head nurse. However, during the pandemic, Castillejo has been relying on their support more than usual to help her cope with the loss of loved ones.

"You know you're staying for longer hours, you really have to eat and drink and take care of each other," she says. "In those moments—maybe we don't even know it—that's making us survive. We're really just helping each other...we're doing everything together."

When Castillejo's mother passed away during the pandemic, her coworkers' contributions toward the funeral costs shocked her. One coworker of hers sent her a $1,000 check. 

Institutional Support Matters

When Felina Sarmiento, a nurse in Huntsville, Alabama, started working as a night shift nurse in a COVID-19 ICU unit after graduating from the University of Alabama last May, she felt like she didn’t know what she was doing. 

“I was super scared to work in the ICU,” Sarmiento tells Verywell. “I felt like I was going to kill someone.” 

Felina Sarmiento
Felina Sarmiento pictured. Courtesy of Felina Sarmiento

Sarmiento says she depended on her coworkers, who would often rush into the room to help her stabilize patients whose vitals were going the wrong way.  

“I see my coworkers more than I see my actual family,” Sarmiento says. “They understand what I’m going through and I can just talk to them about anything.”  

They also helped her cope with what she saw in the hospital. She struggled with anxiety and depression in nursing school, and once she started working in the ICU, her mental health worsened. 

“There was one time my patient was actively dying on me for most of my shift and I started crying in front of my coworker,” Sarmiento says. “She was telling me it was going to be OK and we were going to get through this.”

Sarmiento likes her job, but she wishes she and her coworkers had more institutional support. She thinks the programs and counseling the hospital provides aren't enough, and she worries about the stigmas attached to seeking help.

“When you look at how people actually treat us as nurses, I feel like the words people say don’t match up to their actions,” Sarmiento says. “I understand that everyone is trying their best to support us, but instead of saying we’re heroes, they should actually try to do something for us.” 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Grace Deng
Grace Deng is a public affairs intern with the Columbus Dispatch and a student at Northwestern University.