10 p.m., Saturday
Dr. Rodney Dofitas, chief of surgical oncology at the UP-Philippine General Hospital, was saying his last goodbyes to his beloved aunt Medy, who had just breathed her last, at the seventh floor of the hospital. She was, he recalls, “my guardian angel for the longest time.”
Dr. Rodney lingered by her side, not wanting to let go just yet. But as the clock was ticking, the power on his mobile phone was also ebbing.
Dr. Rodney and his family, including his son, Anthony, who is also in surgical oncology, knew it was time to leave the room and head for the mortuary. Then Dr. Rodney noticed his phone had completely lost its power, so he charged it first, delaying their departure. When his phone lit up, Dr. Rodney and his family escorted the gurney bearing their late aunt out of the room and into the elevator.
Dr. Rodney then decided to take the stairs instead of waiting for the next elevator. That split-second decision proved to be crucial. When he reached the third floor, he heard loud voices and a commotion in the Operating Room.
“I investigated and saw smoke at the farthest end of the hallway. I saw a person running out of the room, security guards carrying a fire extinguisher and wall hose and trying to enter the area where the thick smoke was coming from,” Dr. Rodney, who also heads the manpower support of the PGH COVID crisis team, recalled to me.
By some coincidence – or was it divine intervention? – the PGH safety officer Joel Santiago, whose expertise is fire and disaster response, was also in the hospital, recovering from robotic surgery!
He had probably one percent of power on his phone left, and could only make one, just one, call — and he decided it would be to the director of the hospital, Dr. Gerardo “Gap” Legaspi. The call, according to Dr. Rodney, was the first to reach Dr. Gap.
After midnight, Sunday
By some coincidence — or was it divine intervention? — the PGH safety officer Joel Santiago, whose expertise is fire and disaster response, was also in the hospital, recovering from robotic surgery! Dr. Rodney’s next thought was to go to him.
“I told him he had a job to do,” Dr. Rodney remembers telling Joel, whom he roused from his sleep. Joel got up from his hospital bed, and together, he and Dr. Rodney returned to the scene of the fire on the third floor. By then, firemen (the “real heroes,” says Dr. Rodney) started to arrive and coordinate with Joel. Immediately, there was a person in charge.
Before leaving the fifth floor on their way to the third floor, Dr. Rodney instructed the nurses at their stations to evacuate patients.
“I started to think about patients like my aunt and the wonderful nurses who took care of her, and that they could be trapped on the floors above the fire,” shares Dr. Rodney, whose family, by this time, was wondering what was taking him so long to come down. His phone had completely lost power by this time.
“While we were fighting the fire, and since I had no phone, I asked the security guard to radio the evacuation of all patients on the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh floors, potential trap areas.”
Dr. Rodney kept his calm because PGH has an evacuation plan for instances such as this. And after battling crisis after crisis due to the pandemic, they were prepared.
“So, evacuation was through the stairs in an orderly manner. First were able patients, then those on ventilators and babies,” he says, adding that he felt confident because he knew Dr. Gap, the captain of the ship, would soon be in the hospital.
By this time, Dr. Rodney’s family was already worried, having seen the smoke billowing out the windows of the third floor and still unable to reach him. Was he trapped on his way down?
Dr. Rodney’s son Anthony scoured the hospital corridors for him, probably saving his life with fresh supplies of N95 masks and N99 respirators — not a minute too soon because it is usually smoke inhalation that causes injury and death during a fire — and a power bank!
When Dr. Gap arrived, it was a fresh gust of air for his troops.
“He assessed the situation very well and I remember him telling me two things. First, that he is setting up a command post in the director’s office, because everything has to be coordinated. And he looked at me and asked, ‘Why are you only wearing an ordinary face mask?’ I just brushed it aside.”
Pediatrician Dr. Jhing Talan was on the first floor when the fire broke out and her first thoughts were of the babies in the nursery on the fourth floor.
She recalls: “A pedia resident was asked to evacuate immediately but he decided to bring an intubated pre-term baby (with him). He put the baby in his pocket because he couldn’t carry the isolette, and he did ‘ambu bagging’ (an ambu bag is a hand-held manual resuscitator) while going down. Then he hooked the baby to oxygen when he got to the first floor.
“Pedia residents and fellows ran a code on an elderly woman who was being evacuated from the sixth floor. Good she was revived.
“Priests making the chapel available for many of our pedia patients and their caregivers, and even serving boiled eggs to people in the vicinity.
“Nurses and nurse aides (were) tracking patients in the parking lot, by the flag pole, in the chapel, and many other places to make sure everyone was evacuated from higher floors.
“NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit) nurses, residents and fellows (were) making sure all 35 out of the 35 NICU babies, even the intubated ones, were evacuated safely. They were on the fourth floor, and the fire was on the third floor. So ilang taas-baba to bring down intubated babies na kailangan i-ambubag (so you could imagine how many times they went up and down the stairs to bring down intubated babies), making sure each patient had a tag to avoid a ‘Mara-Clara’ incident (Mara-Clara was a soap opera where the babies were switched in the hospital - JRR)
“And I never heard anyone grumble.”
5:41 a.m., Sunday
The fire, said to have started in an OR supply room, and fed by inflammable linen and drapes, is controlled. There are no injuries or fatalities reported. All 35 babies are safe.
“I want to remember this tiring day as a good one,” says Dr. Jhing. “People are really good at heart.”
All 35 of the babies, many of whom were taken to other hospitals, are now back in PGH.
As PGH spokesman Dr. Jonas de Rosario told me, “I was amazed with the show of love and generosity of our kababayans to PGH. The outpouring of support, from the general citizenry to the administration, is truly humbling. Nakakataba ng puso (It fills the heart). I’m sure there are others who are equally deserving of the national attention. The best way to show our gratitude is to do better, do more.”