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Inspiring Person Of The Week: US-Based Filipino Doctor Matthew Libiran And His Experiences From America's COVID-19 Frontlines

"In the bleakest situations, optimism prevails... A positive attitude, rather than a positive COVID-19 test result, is what should be focused on," he tells us

Indiana-based Filipino doctor Matthew Libiran is the Vice President of the East Chicago Board of Health, as well as the Medical Director of the 219 Health Network and Vice Chairman of the Family Medicine Department of St. Catherine Hospital.


For years, responsibilities of his job had included things like doing rounds, checking on patients' conditions, adjusting and prescribing medication, and likely cheerfully conversing with colleagues and holding encouraging conversations with patients' loved ones, too. After all, doctors are "instruments of God’s greater love," as this doctor says.


In his day, he's seen his fair share of ups and downs, highs and lows, celebration and mourning. Despite the tougher days, Dr. Matthew remains unfazed, his faith remains intact, and his passion for caring for life, unextinguished.  




And then COVID-19 came to America.


On January 21, the US reported its first positive COVID-19 case, a man residing in Washington State. 


Three months later, the virus would cross state lines, traveling some 2,160-plus miles to make it to Indiana. St. Catherine Hospital would become a COVID-19 hotspot. Dr. Matthew would be thrust into one of America's deadliest coronavirus frontlines. 


"We come into our shifts knowing we may leave that same shift with the viral genome being transcribed in our infected cells. Suddenly, this shared fear unites us. We all walk around with the same worry and the same risks, yet we still persist. Despite the danger and the inadequacies, being able to save a single life is more than a reason to continue," he divulges. 


And just like that, his responsibilities became less about being a kind doctor, and much more like the duties of a soldier in war. Only this time, the enemy is invisible and insidious, and very powerful indeed. 


"As of this writing, there exist 15,000 COVID-19 cases in Indiana with 785 reported deaths. A majority of our hospital’s cases come from overcrowded hospitals in Chicago. In fact, Chicago alone sits at 27,600 cases with 1,250 reported deaths. It comes to no surprise that these numbers only continue to rapidly increase," he reports. 


Overall, the United States has over one million positive COVID-19 cases. To put that into perspective, there are currently three million COVID-19 cases in the entire world. The US alone accounts for a third of that number. 


It was an event he could have never anticipated, something he could have never truly prepared for.


But even so, as he dives into the thick of battle, as he fights against the genuine fear of infection and death as he suits up in PPE armor, Dr. Matthew tells us the following with confidence. 


"To everyone, we will get through this. To doctors, we will continue to do what we do best. To citizens, thank you for staying at home. To politicians, we appreciate all your efforts. Despite the suffering, the economical adversities, and the emotional upheaval, there will be an end to this pandemic."


He tells us more about his experiences in the frontline. 


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On the best and worst things about the crisis: 

This health crisis has certainly widened the distance between extreme experiences in the workplace for hospital staff like Dr. Matthew. Tragedies weigh heavier on shoulders more than usual, though at the same time, successes are celebrated tenfold and are appreciated much more deeply. 


"The worst thing to see is witnessing patients struggling to breathe, gasping for air as if they were drowning. The worst thing to experience, as a doctor, is the large magnitude of helplessness. The reality of this matter is that there is no vaccine and the research is still relatively vague. Despite being a healthcare professional, the only thing you can really hope for is the best possible outcome for your patients," he shares. 




However, looking beyond the crisis, and farther than the walls of their hospital, Dr. Matthew points out the good that this situation has brought about: universality of experiences, the healing of the Earth, resiliency, altruism, and strengthened human bonds. 


"These experiences are uniting us in ways that are unexpectedly beautiful, in terms of decreasing pollution, increasing appearance of wildlife, messages of support on neighbors’ homes, and frivolous social media challenges. We see countless donations for masks and protective gear. We see numerous acts of kindness because we all realize that everyone is dealing with this crisis in their own difficult way. Reasons to smile are more apparent," he adds. 


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On being a Filipino doctor working abroad:

In the past weeks, US and UK publications shone the spotlight on critical members of their healthcare systems: Filipino nurses and doctors, who sacrifice so much day in and day out these days in order to continue being of service to society. To Filipinos themselves, this signature attitude of pagaaruga and malasakit towards others is not new—it is second skin, and is expected, even. Even so, it was a major morale-booster for Filipinos abroad to be recognized this way.




Dr. Matthew agrees that Filipinos are invaluable workers, saying, "The innate nature of Filipinos to care and respect others, especially elderly citizens, makes it inevitable for us to be of excellence in healthcare. In fact, many US hospitals recognize such sought after characteristics. Rarely will one see a healthcare institution in the US without Filipino employees. Increasing recognition and respect for Filipinos is of utmost significance, considering that in many circumstances, Filipinos and Asian Americans can be considered invisible minorities in the United States."


Dr. Matthew was always proud to be Filipino. Stories like this make him even prouder—of himself, and of his kababayans, too.  


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On the kind of help that doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers need right now: 

Aside from staying at home and following other city or neighborhood-specific guidelines, there are other things Dr. Matthew cites that would be extremely helpful for healthcare professionals. And he doesn't only mean the fast-tracked discovery of a vaccine, more PPEs and testing kits, and other donations (though, of course, all of those are welcome!).


He means better leadership and a tighter grasp on a sense of responsibility from those with the power to influence citizens, on in other words, for governments to do better.


"The American government must place themselves in a position of strong leadership and responsibility, especially in terms of public control. It is evident that the controversial statements and misleading information from higher government officials are of no help. Furthermore, American protests and an 'economy over health' mindset are also of no help... The help we truly need is strong leadership and mindful thinking amongst citizens. In terms of those goals, we seem to be digressing," Dr. Matthew says. 


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On a growing number of Americans protesting their freedom and rights to return to work and live without restrictions:

Limitations—that's the keyword. It's true that Americans (and any other person in the world) have a right to freedom. But these are extraordinary circumstances we're living in, and they require extraordinary sacrifice and adjustment. Unfortunately, there are still those who refuse to see the bigger picture and maintain an "economy over health" attitude, butting heads with doctors and others who beg them to stay at home and limit outside activities. Many Americans have even taken to the streets to protest quarantines and blatantly disobey social distancing and mask-wearing rules.


"As a healthcare professional, this is quite disheartening to see. Frontliners are risking their lives, their personal safety, and the safety of their own families in order to combat this invisible enemy. Meanwhile, the only thing that is being asked of non-healthcare workers is to simply stay at home. While it is a strong opinion, such protests are selfish and prioritize recreational freedom and economic stability over valuable lives. It is a mere choice between lives or livelihood一the decision should be rather clear," Dr. Matthew shares.




For those who support protestors, Dr. Matthew invites you to see things from a different perspective. The statistics reported on COVID-19 activity in the country: they are not only numbers, but they are mothers who have died too soon, fathers who never got to say goodbye to their children, grandparents who passed away alone, frontline workers who have gotten infected in the line of duty. 


"I would first tell them to imagine witnessing their loved one starting to cough, experience shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, fever and chills. Next, I would then tell them to imagine their loved one’s condition to worsen, in which they are struggling to breathe and are forced to rely on a ventilator to catch their breath... I would tell them that this gruesome experience can be prevented for an increasing number of Americans by flattening the curve. Listen to the science, listen to the facts, but most importantly, sympathize with those who must deal with this grim reality and act accordingly," he requests. 


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On his final message to each and every person affected by the pandemic: 

No one has been spared from the crisis. Lives have changed and the future is uncertain, and no one truly knows how to define what is and isn't, what will and won't be normal anymore. And then we ask, how many more will have to be infected—how many more people will have to say goodbye to loved ones—until this all ends, for good? 


Dr. Matthew doesn't have the answer to that, but he isn't completely empty-handed. What he has is a message of hope. From someone who's seen the worst that the COVID-19 has wreaked upon people, hope is still something he has in his emotional vocabulary and he wishes to share it with everyone.


"It is often that people think about how once this all ends, life will be at its peak and humanity will rejoice. We will rejoice, but in order to reach that fulfillment, we first must reevaluate. This crisis is a period of spiritual cleansing. We are learning to take things slowly, to not work too hard, to not take time with friends and family for granted, and to force Mother Nature to heal," he says. 


"Appreciate the freedom that we take for granted—the warm hugs, the family parties, the visits from loved ones, and eating out for dinner, concepts that were so familiar and mundane have now become the experiences that we yearn for the most. But do take into account that humanity as a whole, just like individuals, has its ups and downs. Remember that during these low points, we learn the most about ourselves. At the end of all of this, we will turn out to be much better human beings," he concludes. 


Photos courtesy of Dr. Matthew Libiran