The heART of Weathering the Pandemic Storm

By Dr. Maria Cristina Teotico

As told to BSN editor-in-chief Freida Dario-Santiago

Dr. Maria Cristina Teotico, known simply as Doc Girlie, Boracay island doctor since 1999, she runs the family-owned Metropolitan Doctors Medical Clinics (MDMC) on Boracay Island, that has remained open 24/7 for the past 20 years and throughout both the island closure and the quarantine. A fulltime doctor and mother of two: Patch (5) and Gabbie (11 months), she shares her story that takes us behind the clinic doors and gives us an unadulterated glimpse at a frontline mother’s reality during the pandemic, on an island on lockdown.

FaceTime with the family (clockwise from left): Doc Girlie with Patch & Gabbie, Don, Mona and Max (her husband's children from a previous relationship) and husband Rollie, a pilot and also a front liner

One of the things that was very hard was trying to adjust to the new normal and accepting that THIS IS the normal for medical professionals as myself: wearing of face masks, face shields, goggles, and PPEs. Also, it’s like I’m in Med school all over again because every night I have to catch-up on reading vast amounts of information, processing the information, trying to see if the information is valid (because there is just so much info out there and you have to validate and decipher which ones to follow. The pressure comes from information overload, coming from everywhere and coming in all at the same time.

And at the same time I’m thinking about how to make all those changes applicable to the clinic so that we can keep our people and our patients safe. All the more because I do have to go home to a 10-month old baby boy, and a five-year-old girl that is very inquisitive. Early on, we already devised a plan where there is a hot, a clean and a dirty area. And every time I go home I take a specific path straight to the bathroom to take a shower. Because I am on duty, I limit my time going up to the house, not just to limit exposure, but also because every time I go up I need to change my clothes and take a bath before I can interact with the people inside the house. Thankfully, because of the GCQ, there’s not much patients at night, so we do get to sleep at night unless there’s an emergency. [She lives on the second floor of a building close by to one of her clinics.]

But that’s also the thing. Because there’s an ECQ or a GCQ, things are doubly hard, when it was already hard just being on an island to begin with. For example, if a patient gets a heart attack, they need to be transferred out of the island and it’s a major production already even before there was an ECQ. Imagine having to do that now. It takes about 7 to 10 steps (from 3 to 4 steps before). You have to talk to and get permission from so many different people. So even if it’s a medical emergency and is supposed to be quicker, it ends up much more difficult.

There was one time when we had two pregnant women who had vaginal bleeding that came in 30-minutes apart. We had to get them to Kalibo to get ultrasounds, one of them we suspected was an ectopic pregnancy. It was ECQ then and there was no public transport available. Because of the need, we committed to our patients and coordinate it. We secured appointments with the ultrasound facility and with the OB for the next day. Everything was set including the transportation. It was unfortunate however that the patients were advised

by the transport, “Ok we can take you there but if we get called to an emergency, bahala na kayo umuwi (it’s up to you on how you get home).” [In Doc Girlie fashion, she tells this story lightly, like a mother telling a bedtime story (or a doctor comforting a patient before sticking a needle in them!)]

So, fearing that they might not have a way home, the patients sadly abandoned their appointments. Things could have been different, with words chosen to encourage so as not to put off people, rather than just saying, “bahala na kayo.” The moral of this story not just for this case but also for this time of pandemic is that we need to communicate things well because the way you say things can influence a decision. That said, it does take a certain amount of training on how to talk to people when delivering bad news, or just getting your point across, especially in emergency situations when it is difficult to simplify and translate, and all the more now when everybody is panic-stricken, bewildered or at a loss, even me.

I keep sane by spending time with my kids. Just talking inane stuff with my daughter, watching a Korean telenovela together even if she doesn’t understand and she keeps asking me “What did she say?” That helps to rest my brain from reading all sorts of guidelines, studies, current events, and the latest information because you cannot be lacking or behind. It also calms me down enough for me to be able to think more clearly about what needs to be done, because there’s so much, so much… [Her voice trails off as she instinctively looks up and momentarily gets lost in thought] …so much to fix, protocols need to be set, written, then taught, and the staff need to be safe, secure and happy.

A pensive moment as she pauses mid-video interview to ponder the countless things to be done.

And then of course, trying to keep everyone safe, and trying to get enough PPEs here.

We don’t actually have actual medical-grade PPEs. What we have are makeshift DIY PPEs that are not bad for its purpose but I don’t think that if we had an actual covid case, that it will protect us. Always at the back of my head is how to procure these because one, it’s expensive, and two, there’s always the logistical problem of bringing things here.

So all of that rolled into one is how a 24-hour work day is for me. So aside from seeing patients, I am also trying to manage three households – with my children here, my mother and my husband in Manila, plus the household of the staff. So managing all that, and trying to figure out how to keep people healthy mentally, physically and emotionally (because some of them haven’t gone home to their families), and helping everyone through the process in realizing that this will be it for the next two to three years. I think when you’ve accepted that this is it, there’s less strain and less resistance and so you can move forward. It’s not a change but more of a transformation from one into another.

Haruki Murakami said, “And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” (Kafka on the Shore)

It’s not all bad. It is important to choose to see the good rather than the bad.

The beach is better, we’re a little healthier in that we are less stressed and strained in a sense. Other than the one case in early March coming from Manila, thankfully we have not had any additional positive cases over the last month since the lockdown. While there is some hesitation to having a LIGTAS COVID CENTER or a Community Isolation unit for PUI and PUM on the island (there is one in Caticlan), we hope that they see the wisdom in having one here especially when the island opens up as we ease out of the quarantine.

We appeal to everyone to do their part: I protect you, you protect me.

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