Over decades in medicine, Filipino doctor Jonas del Rosario informed countless family members about the deaths of their relatives. But when his turn came, he received the news by video link during a pandemic, which claimed the lives of his father and mother.
“In a way, I feel helpless because I wanted to save my parents,” said Del Rosario, a spokesperson for the Philippine General Hospital who contracted the coronavirus himself but recovered.
The 55-year-old has spent the past year on the front lines of the outbreak in the Philippines, where almost 13,000 people have died. But in a country where faith in the government’s response has taken a hit, Del Rosario’s personal story of loss combined with his public health credentials have turned him into a rare figure of trust.
On Wednesday, he is scheduled to get one of the first public vaccinations. That he was chosen for the task is a sign of his prominent role and a hugely symbolic act in a country where vaccine distrust is widespread.
For Filipinos, Del Rosario is the face and voice of one of the country’s largest medical institutions, Philippine General Hospital, known more commonly as PGH. He appears in near-daily briefings or in TV and radio interviews. But in his five years as the hospital’s spokesperson, which he does in addition to his main duties in pediatric cardiology, he said he has never seen science challenged so strongly. As a result, he has relied on the basics of communication to convey life-saving advice.
“The hospital director told me when he offered this job to always speak clearly and to always speak the truth,” he said.
One of his former trainees testified to Del Rosario’s ability to translate complex medical concepts, calling it “uncanny.”
The youngest of four children, Del Rosario was his mother’s last hope of having a doctor in the family. He did not want to go into medicine, but decided to follow his mother’s wishes.
After a brief fellowship in the United States, he went back to the Philippines to train generations of pediatric cardiologists. His wife is a dentist and they have three children.
In April 2020, barely a month after the pandemic started spreading in the Philippines, Del Rosario tested positive for COVID-19—despite being asymptomatic—after one member of the crisis committee at PGH contracted the virus. He recovered, but he was soon dealing with a personal crisis of his own.
In July 2020, his 90-year-old father, Bonifacio, tested positive and had to be hospitalized at his son’s place of employment. He had severe pneumonia and difficulty breathing.
“I was worried about his psychological state... I decided to go there in his room every day, spend like four hours a day,” Del Rosario said.
“Two hours in the morning, I will feed him, I will bring him his food for lunch and in the evening, I will also go there to feed him. For almost four hours, I will be donning this Level 4 PPE [personal protective equipment], I look like an astronaut. I was doing that for two weeks.”
Just a week into his father’s hospital admission, his 85-year-old mother, Carmelita, also tested positive and was admitted in the same hospital. Her condition was worse and she had to go into intensive care.
Del Rosario was extremely anxious about their well-being, knowing full well that his parents were in high-risk groups because of their advanced age. But he kept working and trying to visit them. Then on July 28, he tested positive again. The virus was not so easy on him this time. He needed supplemental oxygen and also had pneumonia.
His daily visits to his parents had to stop, but he did not fail to check up on them through video monitors provided by the hospital. As both of his parents stayed longer without turning the corner, their health deteriorated. It was becoming clear that they wouldn’t make it.
“I could not sleep even when the doctors tell me, ‘Sir, please take a rest and sleep because you’re also sick. You need to get well soon,’” he said.
“How can I do that when every time I look at the screen of my video monitor, I see my parents struggling. My dad is restless, my mom is intubated and I try to get information from the nurses, from the doctors, it was really hard. I said, ‘What a nightmare this was!’ How I wish it was just me,” he said.
Doctors repeatedly reminded Del Rosario that he needed to take care of himself to speed up his recovery. They told him about the important role he had to play in the hospital that was fighting every day to save lives.
“When you are facing death in a way, staring you in the eyes, I couldn’t focus on solely getting myself better because at the back of my mind I see that my parents are also struggling,” he said.
“When you are facing death in a way, staring you in the eyes, I couldn’t focus on solely getting myself better because at the back of my mind I see that my parents are also struggling.”
The doctor attending to his father broke the news about his death over an iPad while he was in another room. His mom had no idea what was going on.
“It was like a thief in the night, he died unexpectedly,” Del Rosario said.
Victims of COVID have to be taken immediately to the morgue and cremated within 24 hours. In the short window after his father’s death, Del Rosario asked the hospital’s permission to see him. He donned personal protective equipment and headed straight to his father’s isolation room.
“Tay (Filipino for father), forgive me I could not save you,” Del Rosario recalled saying, crying as he hugged the corpse, which was still warm.
A month later, his mother also died.
“I was praying, ‘God, give my mom to me. Just take only one please,’” he said. “But it’s like they talked to each other because my mom immediately followed my dad.”
His communications experience and his personal tragedy with the virus led administrators and officials to choose him as the first person in the country to publicly receive the vaccine. Though he was worried that people might think he didn’t deserve to get the first shot because as a survivor, he had developed antibodies, a colleague persuaded him.
PGH director Dr. Gerardo Legaspi described Del Rosario’s vaccination as “the last phase of his COVID journey.”
“This is full circle,” Del Rosario recalled Legaspi telling him as he convinced him to take the first shot. “You symbolize the front-liners who have personally gone through the battles of COVID, who experienced it because you got infected and you lost your loved ones.”
“But despite it all, you came out strong and now back to fight in the battle again.”
The Philippines lagged behind other Southeast Asian countries on vaccine rollout. The limited number of doses were sent to hospitals in hopes of protecting its tired medical front-liners as the country dealt with a new resurgence of the virus.
Legaspi ended up receiving the first shot at the hospital using China-made Sinovac, which was first delivered in the Philippines, on March 1. On Wednesday, Del Rosario is instead set to take the UK-developed AstraZeneca vaccine. The country received its first batch of almost 500,000 AstraZeneca doses through the World Health Organization-led COVAX plan.
Del Rosario was thankful to all the front-liners who took care of him. His two clashes with the virus as a patient helped him understand even more what it takes to report to duty every day at the hospital.
“I owe them a lot,” he said. “They are the reason why I’m still here today and they have helped me understand what it means to be a doctor for the people.”
Working at PGH every day still reminds him of his loss. But it is also his fuel, helping him find new reserves of energy to serve the public after going through his personal “nightmare.”
“The work that I do at PGH now is my way of paying respects to my parents. This is my way of putting meaning to their death so that others may know that this can happen and that you may die so don’t take [COVID] lightly.”