Mea Sarmiento-Babiera was unfamiliar with the deafening silence of a hospital. To the 33-year-old doctor, the scene in the Manila Doctors Hospital is always a mad rush of tired health workers scrambling to treat patients. But after contracting COVID-19 in April, Mea experienced a quieter side of her workplace. In isolation, she didn't talk to or see anyone, save for the PPE-clad nurses and doctors making their rounds. Sometimes, she went on video calls with her husband Ban, 33, also a doctor, who was also quarantined in another hospital for contracting the coronavirus. This has been the toughest challenge in their relationship since getting married in December. It’s even harder because they also have a baby on the way.
“What will happen to me? What will happen to my baby, to my husband? There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Mea, then seven months pregnant, asked herself.
The couple worked at the frontlines ever since the outbreak started in the Philippines. They would wake up next to each other each morning and drive to work together in the same car, only parting ways to go to their respective hospitals. Ban is an anesthesiology resident at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), which is now dedicated to COVID-19 patients. Mea is an OB-GYN resident in the nearby Manila Doctors Hospital. They would come home to each other tired from their shifts but still made sure to wash up before spending time together, to protect their baby. But it wasn’t enough.
In March, four weeks after he started treating coronavirus patients, Ban came home feeling unwell. He had a cough and severe body pains, symptoms of COVID-19. He tested positive for the disease and was immediately quarantined in PGH.
“While I was alone, I was thinking of my future with Mea. I told myself, I need to muster enough courage. It doesn’t make sense for me to give up now that we’re having a baby,” Ban told VICE.
“I need to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually strong to overcome this.”
When Ban was admitted, all Mea could do was to pray for her husband’s swift recovery. She was worried about contracting the virus too.
“It was really scary because you see in the news all of these other frontline healthcare workers who are passing in a blink of an eye,” Mea said. “You see young doctors with very severe situations, severe complications.”
On May 18, the Philippines’ health department reported that over 2,300 healthcare workers had contracted the coronavirus. Of that number, 35 died. This included some of the country’s most brilliant minds in the medical field and young doctors and nurses who were just beginning their careers.
Ban and Mea were afraid of the same fate. Their fears only worsened when, a week after Ban’s diagnosis, Mea also tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to the Manila Doctors Hospital.
“I was scared but I knew I needed to have a positive mindset,” Mea said.
“If I let it get to me, it would affect my baby. I can't let myself be down emotionally because I’m carrying another person inside me.”
Mea happily served in the frontlines, helping expectant mothers at the worst possible time to give birth, then ended up experiencing what they all feared.
“Quitting is not an option for me,” she said. “If you really love what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it, you become a blessing to your patients in any way you can.”
The couple said that the pandemic is depriving them of the joy and thrill of being first-time parents. Ban can’t be there as Mea’s belly grows because he has been in isolation for over a month. He’s missing opportunities to talk to and bond with their baby while she’s still in the womb. They can’t go to malls to buy the baby’s essentials, hold a gender reveal party with their loved ones, or go on walks together. Their excitement is marred by fear.
“It’s like being married to an overseas Filipino worker (OFW),” Mea said. “We talk everyday but it’s very hard. He can’t see and appreciate my pregnancy step by step. He feels guilty because, as the man of the house, he can’t physically support me.”
She was in the clear after a week in isolation but Ban was under observation for over a month. He even spent his 29th birthday alone under quarantine. He was discharged from the hospital on May 13, 43 days after testing positive, and is now staying in a condo to isolate for two weeks before reuniting with his wife.
They’re afraid of their baby contracting the coronavirus after delivery. In the Philippines, at least 25 infants have been infected and two have died as of April 30.
“I think about my baby’s future, if this goes on, will she have a normal future?” Mea wondered.
Apart from the emotional toll, being sick, pregnant, and alone is also difficult from a medical standpoint.
“It’s very difficult to be carrying another person at this time,” Mea said. “Both for the mother and her doctor.”
The hospital where she works delivers at least six babies a day. Because most hospitals are now focused on treating COVID-19 patients, it has become difficult for expectant mothers to avail of the services they need. Clinical protocol requires pregnant women to wear N95 masks inside hospital premises. They need to undergo tests like chest X-rays before entering the “clean” area of the hospital to ensure that they’re COVID-19-free. Those who are afraid of contracting the coronavirus avoid hospitals completely.
Despite the risks, this is why Mea, now eight months pregnant, decided to go back to the frontlines after a week of recovery. After testing negative twice, she left the hospital’s isolation room, quarantined at home for 14 days, put on a PPE suit on top of her maternity dress, and attended to mothers who badly needed prenatal care.
Her unique position as a pregnant OB-GYN allows her to relate with patients more.
“As a doctor, I took an oath. I felt that I have the responsibility to go back,” Mea said. “I need to be there for my patients. I know what they’re going through because I am also going through it.”
Her husband plans to return to the frontlines too, as soon as he gets a go-signal from his hospital.
“I am excited to do anesthesia again. I prefer to work in the hospital than being confined here,” Ban said.
For the couple, the pandemic is both the worst and best time to be a doctor.
“We’ve been through a lot of difficulties in our journey to become a doctor. It’s not easy,” Ban said. “This is when I can say it is all worth it because I can say that the people really need us. This is the best time to heed the call of service.”