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Trapped in the PGH fire

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published May 25, 2021 4:00 am

“Caring is the essence of nursing.” — Jean Watson

 “Save one life, you’re a hero. Save 100 lives, you’re a nurse.”  —Unknown

When a fire breaks out, we are trained to flee. But there is a rare breed of people who are trained to rush to where even some of the bravest fear to tread. Some of them are called “Nurses.”

That Saturday night, when most of us would have been chillin’ at home, nurse Kathrina Bianca Macababbad, a millennial, was bathing newborns, in the nursery of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) — and loving it. To her, it was not a chore.

Growing up in Tondo, Manila, Kathrina’s childhood dream was to become a doctor, but financial difficulties shifted the sails of her dreams.

 Neonatal intensive care unit nurse Kathrina Bianca Macababbad.

“I really admired their (doctors’) contribution and service to humanity. I was not able to pursue this dream due to financial constraints. I needed to earn my bread and butter, and to support my family,” she said.

Even then, one of the 35 helpless  “PGH fire” babies’ guardian angels were working their magic, for one day in the future, Kathrina would be their angel — as a nurse at the right place at the most urgent of times. Though she wanted to become a doctor, Kathrina eventually realized nursing was her calling.

“Nurses work hand in hand with doctors all the time. They are within the patient’s reach and directly provide care for them. Aside from fulfilling my dreams and my ideals, I also believe that as a nurse, I will find purpose. My love for this profession was magnified when I started to practice in the hospital. With every patient encounter, every therapeutic communication with patients, every battle against disease and death, easing pain and suffering even just by staying with them and listening to their stories — and the most beautiful of all, witnessing a new life being born right in front of your eyes — I found purpose.”

“It fuels the burning passion within me to continue serving and taking care of them.”

As Kathrina was “enjoying my time bathing my babies,” someone suddenly opened the door to her room and said, “You must be ready to evacuate because the hospital is burning!”

Imagine the thoughts that raced in her mind. As she told me in an interview Friday, five of the six of the babies she was assigned to were born prematurely and needed extra care.

 The babies they refused to leave behind. Photos from the Facebook page of Kathrina Bianca Macababbad

But in life and death situations, even man has to play God and make choices.

“During emergencies, we practice a triage. According to that principle, we have to evacuate the ‘well’ babies first or at least those babies who can breathe on their own.”

Immediately, nursing attendants donned emergency vests, which have large pockets that could accommodate and support up to four babies at once. Then all of the nurses carried babies, too.

As Jomar and Kathrina were racing up and down the building – and against time – oxygen supply was suddenly cut off. The lights also went out. Fortunately, two more guardian angels appeared — a fireman and a security guard.

Most of the nurses, including herself, were teary-eyed, recalls Kathrina, “because we couldn’t bring with us the babies who were hooked on mechanical ventilators, and the babies who were intubated.” 

When the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurses reached the open grounds in front of the building with lives literally on their hands (and pockets), she realized half of the babies were left behind on the fourth floor.

“When that sunk in, my colleague nurse Jomar Mallari and I raced back upstairs to get more babies. But since the next batch of babies were ventilator-dependent, their evacuation was more critical. We could only bring one baby down each time — I remember my right arm supporting the baby and my left hand applying manual ventilation through the ambu bag (a hand-held mechanical ventilator). I also got the chance to bring down more emergency supplies while evacuating.”

Kathrina and Jomar made about five trips up to the nursery, even if the fire was not yet contained. Up to now, she doesn’t know where she got all her strength.

As Jomar and Kathrina were racing up and down the building — and against time — oxygen supply was suddenly cut off. The lights also went out. Fortunately, two more guardian angels appeared — a fireman and a security guard. They guided Kathrina and her precious little ones in her loving arms, down.

She was able to breathe fresh air as she reached open ground — but still she couldn’t heave a sigh of relief. Several intubated babies were still trapped on the fourth floor.

“We knew for certain that kapag 'di binaba lahat (if not all were brought down), they would eventually die,” she remembers thinking.

Then she, together with Jomar and other nurses — even doctors — charged up the staircase again to bring the intubated babies down.

Nurses of the Philippine General Hospital attend to newborn babies who are going to be transferred to a nearby hospital after a fire incident on the third floor of the hospital’s central block. (Photos courtesy of the Manila Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office)

“At that moment, I didn’t have anything in particular on my mind. I just knew, if dadagain loob ko, walang mangyayari (if I succumbed to fear, nothing would happen.) The babies were totally dependent on us. Kaya nilakasan ko talaga loob ko. (That’s why I strengthened my resolve.) Kasi mahal po namin mga patients namin. Mas ‘di ko kakayanin na mamamatay sila na wala akong ginagawa.   (We love our patients. And I would not be able to bear the pain of their deaths if I did nothing to save them.)”

It takes dedication and grit to work in PGH. This fire brought out the best in them, showing their inherent concern for our patients, some of them putting their lives on the line.

No lives were lost, or hurt during the four-hour fire that was contained in the wee hours of the morning last Sunday. An outpouring of support drenched battle-weary PGH and their patients. Even celebrity mothers like Georgina Wilson donated breast milk for the babies.

Kathrina is back at work with her head nurse Daisy Panagsangan (who rushed to PGH during the fire even if she was off-duty), fellow nurses Jomar, Phoeby Malabanan, Dianne Redano, Esmeralda Ninto, Patricia Felipe, Jeanabelle Gerogalem, Digna Piamonte, Jessica Cruz, Kris Ilao, Cathy Mangahas and Maricor Campogan.

“Our nurses form the backbone of our clinical services. We cannot do anything without them. In the COVID operations, they work the most number of hours, the most highly exposed as they deal directly with patient care. It takes dedication and grit to work in PGH. This fire brought out the best in them, showing their inherent concern for our patients, some of them putting their lives on the line,” says PGH spokesman Dr. Jonas del Rosario.

“Eventually, I realized that I was made for this,” nurse Kathrina says.  “This is my purpose in this beautiful thing called life.”