(Ethereal music plays.)
President Joe Biden: Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead.
(A moment of silence.)
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria, and this is The Experiment.
Biden: They’re people we knew. They're people we feel like we knew.
Longoria: We have been living through a lot of death lately.
Biden: The son who called his mom every night just to check in. The father’s daughter who lit up his world.
Longoria: And while we’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to make any sense of any particular death—of why this is all happening.
Biden: The nurse—the nurse and nurses—but the nurse who made her patients want to live.
(As Longoria speaks, the music slowly fades out.)
Longoria: But this week, we’re going to try. We’re going to take a look at one death in one community and try to understand what happened. And for this one, reporters Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey are going to take it from here.
Tracie Hunte: So I’m Tracie.
Gabrielle Berbey: And I’m Gabrielle.
Hunte: And we kind of got into this story because of our family backgrounds. I’m from Barbados, my mom is a health-care worker.
Berbey: My family is from the Philippines. I also have a lot of nurses in my family.
Hunte: And when you have family in health care, you worry about them in the middle of a pandemic. How are they doing right now? What are they worried about?
Berbey: And while we were asking ourselves these questions looking into it, we met a woman who had the same worries that we had.
Jollene Levid: Hi, this is Jollene!
Hunte: Jollene Levid—
Jollene: Mom? Can you hear me? No? Okay.
Hunte: —who was worried about her mom, Nora.
Nora Levid: Can you hear me now?
Hunte: Yes. Much better!
Nora: Okay. My name is Nora Levid.
Hunte: So Nora? She’s a former nurse.
Nora: I’ve been a registered nurse for 41 years.
Hunte: Jollene and her mom are Filipino. They live in L.A. And in L.A., Filipinos are everywhere in health care.
Jollene: It’s like, from the security guards to patient transport to the janitors, the LVNs, CNAs, cafeteria workers, uh … nurses and doctors, you’ll see Filipinos. (Laughs.)
Hunte: So Jollene’s mom, Nora, was an ICU nurse for most of her career, and she was working in a clinic that was testing COVID patients up until October.
Nora: It’s, like—it’s hard to let go. So I kept pushing and pushing until they said, “Enough, mom.” (Laughs.)
Jollene: What she’s not telling you is that she should have retired almost three years ago. [Mother and daughter laugh.] So let’s just—let’s just tell the whole truth. So my mother should have been retired. She decided to help out during the pandemic, and, like, she always downplays it. She’s like, “Oh, I just do paperwork.” And we’re like, “Mom, you are in the clinic that they’re testing patients for COVID in!” [Jollene laughs.] “That’s not a retirement!” [Both laugh.]
So that’s why I was like, “Mom. Take care of your flowers. Watch Korean dramas.” [Hunte and Berbey laugh.] “Stay home. Sleep.” You know? Like, come on! She’s like, “I’m going to be so bored. And then what am I going to do? Just look at your dad?” And I’m like, [Cracking up with laughter.] “Just—can you please just retire?” (All laugh.)
Hunte: It’s like, “Yes! Yes. Look at Dad. Look at Dad.”
Jollene: Yes! (Laughs more.)
Hunte: So, at the beginning of the pandemic, Jollene was worried about her mom and all her mom’s friends, all these aunties—who were also nurses—because she knew, given the nature of their work, that they were most likely to get exposed to COVID. Especially because Nora used to work in intensive care.
Nora: Yeah. We—we knew it was going to get worse. In fact [Sighs.] I—I remembered, when I was in ICU, if somebody call in sick, and we have this joke saying, “Oh, you cannot call in sick. Not unless you’re dead.”
(Weighty music plays, somber and resonant, full of empty space.)
Hunte: And so, last March, when COVID here in the U.S. started spreading like wildfire, their fears came true. One of Nora’s friends, also a Filipina nurse, died of COVID.
This death hit the community really hard.
Nora: Oh my God. It’s hitting home so close.
Hunte: This was the first death of a health-care worker in Los Angeles, and it would be the first of many, many more.
Jollene: I started—I started … [A quick sigh.] I started panicking, basically.
Hunte: Jollene was freaking out because she felt that so many nurses dying of COVID—maybe too many of them—were Filipino. So she looked into it. And it turned out she was right. A very strange thing was happening. She found this piece of data:
Jollene: Filipino nurses are 4 percent of total nurses in the U.S., but 31.5 percent of all nurse deaths.
Hunte: Let me just say that again. Filipinos make up 4 percent of nurses in the U.S., but almost a third of nurse deaths from COVID.
Jollene: That’s not an accident.
(The music changes tone: wind, the sound of a wind chime looping, and a tea kettle whistling. Then it takes on a lightness, an openness.)
Hunte: Today, we try to solve this mystery: How did a single group of immigrants—Filipino Americans—end up becoming the most frontline workers of all frontline workers in the country’s fight against COVID?
I’m Tracie Hunte, and this is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(A beat of music, and then, suddenly, silence.)
Hunte: We’re going to start the answer to this question with the women who lost their friend last March: Nora—the ICU nurse—and her friends. They grew up in the Philippines, in Manila, in the ’70s.
Berbey: Can you tell me a little bit about what Manila was like at this time?
Nora: It’s a busy city, just like New York. A lot of restaurants and bars open 24 hours.
(City sounds intermingle with a persistent, lightly funky techno beat.)
Hunte: Nora grew up there with her best friend, Gertrude.
Gertrude Tan: Gertrude Tan.
Hunte: They met in kindergarten.
Tan: We’re like sisters.
Hunte: They grew up together, went to college together, and that’s where they met Joyette Jagolino.
Joyette Jagolino: I was with Gertrude in the microbiology class. I joined their clique.
Hunte: Their clique eventually grew to six women, several of them living together in a ratty apartment.
Tan: We were in a tiny apartment that one of the priests called “a hole in the wall.”
Hunte: And they covered for each other when they were late for class, and they helped each other study.
Nora: We checked each other. “Oh, did you finish studying this? Did you finish studying that?”
Jagolino: We would pretend to be reading in the library, but we would all be napping.
Hunte: When it came time to pick a profession, they all looked at each other.
Nora: “What are you going to be?” And she said, “I don’t know, what about you?” “I don’t know.”
Hunte: And they kind of just picked nursing.
Jagolino: It wasn’t this strong desire to be a nurse. It was sort of a “I fell into it” kind of thing.
Hunte: They just were doing what a lot of Filipino women were doing at that time. And listening to them talk about being teenagers and young adults just trying to figure out what to do next with their lives, it all sounds pretty typical.
(The music fades out quickly. The sounds of a protest can be heard, lightly, in the background.)
Hunte: But in the Philippines at the time, it was actually kind of … a scary moment … [A scream from the protest audio is heard in the background.] because, when it was time for them to graduate, the Philippines was under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
President Ferdinand Marcos: We will eliminate the threat of a violent overthrow of our Republic.
Hunte: And he was out here stealing from the Philippine economy.
Marcos: We must now reform the social, economic, and political institutions in our country.
Hunte: The country was headed toward a recession.
Marcos: The proclamation of martial law is not a military takeover
Hunte: There was also, like, this crackdown on Marcos’s political opponents. And so the whole country was under martial law.
Jagolino: Horrible. Horrible.
Hunte: And so it just sounds like a really, really difficult time to be a young person who’s, like, trying to make your way.
Jagolino: Dictatorship in the Philippines was getting really, really ramped up.
Tan: Staying in the Philippines at that time was not an option [After a pause, emphasizing.] for me … and for a lot of nurses.
Hunte: So, in order to have a future career, they realized that they would have to leave the country.
Nora: Your only option—if you want to help your family—is to go abroad.
Jagolino: And we took a united front.
Hunte: And they decided that they would do it together.
Jagolino: The sisterhood that we would not be separated. That’s when we made that decision.
(Music box–esque music plays, dainty but heavy, in the background.)
Hunte: So the sisterhood met a recruiter who was looking for nurses to go work at a hospital in the United States. And it was this hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
Berbey: What had you heard about Missouri before you got there?
Tan: (Laughs.) Nothing! I just know that it’s a state. (Berbey and Tan laugh.)
Nora: “It has four seasons. I’ll be able to see the snow.” Blah, blah, blah.
Hunte: So after graduation, they left.
Tan: On the plane, that’s when it hit me. [Laughs exactly once.] That’s when I started crying.
Nora: It was sad, but it was reality for us. We have to face reality. So let’s do it!
Hunte: When they landed, they were taken straight to the hospital where they were going to work.
Tan: We were housed in the hospital, initially.
Hunte: They were also going to live there, which is crazy.
Tan: They are patient rooms, but they were not never used by patients. So … it was on the upper level of the hospital.
Hunte: They cooked together. They hung out. They talked about boys.
Jagolino: Oh boy. (Laughs.)
Tan: We consoled each other if there was a breakup. (Chuckles.)
Hunte: And late at night, they’d all get together in the hallway and have a little dance party.
(Disco music plays at a very fast clip.)
Jagolino: Saturday Night Fever came out.
Nora: We would gather in one of the rooms. We would drink and dance together.
Tan: We’d kick our heels, and we’ll sing to the tune of Travolta.
Jagolino: We were all following with a pointy finger. Just dancing up and down the hallway.
Nora: Through the night, until we’re exhausted—and drunk. (Hunte laughs.)
Jagolino: No men were allowed upstairs. Can you imagine? Oh my God. Bunch of Filipino nurses with, you know, orgies upstairs. That would have been the shocker in Missouri. (Laughs heartily.)
(The music plays up and then ends in a blaring crescendo.)
Hunte: The girl crew? They eventually all moved to Los Angeles. And there’s a huge Filipino community there. And that’s where they met a new friend: Rosary. She was also a nurse, also Filipina.
Hunte: Can you tell me about when you met Rosary Castro-Olega?
Tan: Oh, Rosary … How did I meet Rosary? She—she—she’s the kind of person that likes going to Filipino parties.
Hunte: Was there something that stuck out about her that made you think, “Oh, yeah, she has to become part of our crew.”
Tan: She’s just there! (Laughs.)
Jagolino: We just loved her. She loved to dance.
Tan: She will dance. Like, she go low, low, low, low. When you go low, she goes very low.
Jagolino: She’s, like, getting down on the floor. And you would just see her, like, pounding the floor.
Tan: She will sing anything—kind of out of tune, but she will sing. That’s Rosary. She’s a happy person, a very happy person.
Hunte: They were just trying to adjust to life in a new country. There would be moments with their accents, like …
Tan: Medication was pronounced differently. There’s this medication called “digoxin.”
Hunte: Gertrude had this moment where the lab called her …
Tan: The lady on the phone said, “This is the lab. I have the Jackson level for you.” I said, “What? Is there a medication called ‘Jackson,’ like—like Michael Jackson?”
Hunte: And she thought they were talking about Michael Jackson but realized they were just talking about a medication that they just pronounced differently in the Philippines.
Tan: (Laughing uproariously.) She just laughed, and said, “No, it's digoxin.”
Jagolino: And if you can’t communicate correctly, then people get mad at you, and you are labeled dumb.
(Soft, somber music plays.)
Hunte: A lot of these experiences were funny. But some were really hard. They were still new immigrants in a new country, and adjusting was difficult. They told us about this one moment in Missouri, for instance, where it hit them.
Tan: We didn’t have enough mufflers and gloves.
Hunte: They did not have enough clothes to keep themselves warm.
Nora: We would be crying. (Laughs.)
Jagolino: My bones were frozen, and I thought, I could die in this country, and no one would even know it.
(A jazzy guitar melody weaves into the background music.)
Jagolino: So that was the moment—that was the moment of What the hell am I doing here?!
Hunte: I think probably a lot of immigrants have probably had this moment where they look around and ask themselves, “Why are we here?”
Nora: Why did we come here?
Hunte: But for these women in particular—why these women came to this specific country with all of these other Filipina nurses who’d made the exact same journey only to end up on the front lines of this country’s pandemic? It turns out there were some reasons … that were beyond their control.
(The music mellows out as the guitar riff ends.)
Hunte: That’s after the break.
(A lush soundscape plays, just for a moment.)
Hunte: So Gabrielle Berbey and I have been looking into this question of how it came to be that many Filipino nurses ended up in the United States.
Berbey: Yeah. Why did they come here? The answer feels obvious, which was to support their families back home and escape the Marcos dictatorship. But we kept running into, like, a deeper “Why?” of “Why are so many Fillipino nurses in the United States? And how did this whole girl gang that we’ve come to know get recruited to work in Missouri?”
Catherine Ceniza Choy: Yeah, that’s a complex question about …
Berbey: We called a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, Catherine Ceniza Choy.
Ceniza Choy: Please call me Cathy!
Berbey: So Cathy is Filipina American, and she wrote this book, Empire of Care, about Filipino-nurse migration to the United States. And she told us that the story of Nora, Gertrude, and Joyette coming to the United States as nurses, it’s part of a much larger history that actually goes back to 1898.
Ceniza Choy: I think there are a number of myths that are associated with the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.
Berbey: So a lot of people don’t know that the Philippines was a territory of the United States—like American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Ceniza Choy: The U.S. “liberated” the Philippines from traditional colonizers like Spain.
Berbey: When the U.S. took the Philippines from Spain, they didn’t say, like, “We’re going to colonize the Philippines.” They actually used this term—
Ceniza Choy: “Benevolent assimilation.”
Berbey: “We’re going to ‘benevolently assimilate’ the Philippines into the United States.” Which is just like … colonizing.
Ceniza Choy: This characterized U.S. colonialism as one of friendship. And so Filipinos are often portrayed as, quote-unquote, “little Brown brothers.”
Berbey: So, “We’re going to civilize them—not for our own benefit, but for their benefit.”
Ceniza Choy: It’s part of the ideology of U.S. manifest destiny.
Berbey: And part of that civilizing meant training Filipinos in health care.
(Droning music plays.)
Ceniza Choy: And they pointed to the presence of disease and, quote-unquote, “primitive, dirty, uncivilized ways” of Filipinos.
The Philippines needed Americans to colonize and uplift them, specifically through the lens of health care.
They established nursing schools and actively recruited Filipino women, specifically, and actively discouraged Filipino men from entering the profession.
Berbey: So, for decades, all of these nurses in the Philippines are being trained in Americanized nursing schools. And they speak English, and they can actually function in American hospitals, but it’s not until the 1960s that we start to see a big wave of Filipino nurses migrating to the United States.
The U.S. started to experience nursing shortages—partly because of feminism. For the first time, there was a movement of American women who wanted to be lawyers and doctors rather than just these support roles in health care.
The U.S. was like, “Oh, well, in the Philippines, we have all these American-trained nurses, and they speak English. So let’s just recruit nurses from there.”
And one of the reasons hospitals could recruit so easily was because of a historic immigration bill.
President Lyndon B. Johnson: This bill says simply that from this day forward, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills …
Berbey: The 1965 Immigration Act gave “preference” to immigrants with special skills, like nursing.
Johnson: Those who can contribute most to this country—to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit—will be the first that are admitted to this land.
Berbey: This is how Filipinos came to be the largest immigrant group to work in American nursing—and it’s why the sisterhood came here.
Nora: It’s hard work.
Hunte: Gertrude, Joyette, Nora—they spent their careers in really hands-on work in ICUs, PICUs, transplant teams. And, for decades, Filipino nurses have been specifically recruited into these kinds of roles, so they’re concentrated in critical care.
Tan: Lucky for me, I developed that love for nursing.
Hunte: Gertrude and Joyette told us about these intense moments in their work.
Tan: Before a “code blue” situation, you’re talking to a patient and then, all of a sudden, he rolls his eyes up. What are you going to do?
(Light music, like the ringing of bells, plays.)
Jagolino: I saw the baby—little baby—was blue. Her mouth was foaming. I suctioned her mouth and applied oxygen.
Tan: So you do everything. You know, you call “code blue.” Everybody’s in there. You run around, you help these patients …
Jagolino: I started breathing for the baby.
Tan: And then … you see a heartbeat on the monitor.
Jagolino: And the baby pinked up.
Tan: It’s like, “Oh my God! This is so good.” It’s—you feel like you’ve changed something. You changed the course; you changed tragedy; you changed this person’s life.
(A moment with just the music.)
Hunte: This is, like, the kind of bedside-care work, like, this is, like—if you’ve ever been in a hospital, this is the nurse who’s making sure you have your medication. They’re helping you go to the bathroom sometimes. They’re, like, right there doing this really intimate, hard work.
And during the pandemic, they’re the ones who were right there on the front lines, because very often they were the nurses who sat at the bedside of patients as they died of coronavirus alone in the hospitals. I came to sort of think of them as, like—you know, there’s frontline workers, and then there’s frontline of the frontline workers, and that’s these nurses.
(The music plays, quiet and delicate, for a long breath.)
Hunte: Which takes us back to Rosary.
Tan: She worked so hard.
Nora: Her body was used to just work, work, work.
Hunte: When the pandemic hit, Rosary was working directly with COVID patients.
(The music fades out.)
Tan: The next news I heard about her was that she and her two children has COVID.
Nora: One of the daughters called and said she was, uh, admitted to the hospital, eventually became intubated.
Jagolino: And she said, “Mom’s not going to make it. We’re sending, um, uh … uh, voicemail clips to say goodbye to Rosary.” [After a brief moment, crying.] And that was the hardest—that was the hardest—that was the hardest to do.
Jagolino: You had to compose yourself to say something to a machine in order to be played over the PA system into her room, ’cause there was no one in her room. No one! How fair is that?
It infuriates me. It infuriates me when we get to the political situation of it, whether or not she was Filipino and she was at risk to begin with, whether or not there was—you know, the—the preference to put the Filipinos up front. You know what? That’s water under the bridge now. She’s gone. She’s gone. ( Sighs a heavy sigh.)
(Slow, gentle, heavy music plays.)
Hunte: When Rosary died, her friends—they weren’t really wondering why she died. Thinking about why Rosary died wasn’t going to bring her back.
Jollene: I’m on the phone, hearing my mom list off her friends that are passing away from COVID, and I’m like, “There—there’s something missing.”
Hunte: But for Jollene, who was watching her mother and her mother’s friends go to work, and watching them grieve Rosary and say goodbye to her—she did want to know why.
Jollene: And you wonder [Sighs.] a few things. One, you know: Was this on purpose? Um, was this on purpose? Um, it’s not a coincidence that Filipinos here are in the ICUs and the ERs. It’s just a fact. They disproportionately serve in those high-risk departments.
Hunte: There are a lot of reasons that can begin to explain why so many Filipino nurses died in the U.S. pandemic. There are the historical reasons, and the economic reasons that brought them to this country in the first place. There are even some cultural factors that Filipino nurses told us about: They weren’t always given proper PPE, and they didn’t always feel comfortable demanding it for themselves. A group of researchers—mostly Filipino—are just now picking apart the COVID data to put numbers to these reasons.
But there is also this big what-if. What if history had been different?
Jollene: I sometimes wonder what happens if we got to stay home. What if my grandma didn’t have to migrate? [A heavy sigh.]
How would that improve people’s lives in the Philippines, if poverty and other reasons beyond your control didn’t push you to leave your home.
Hunte: And after her Aunty Rosary died, Jollene decided she would start tracking some data herself. She and some of her friends put up a website, Kanlungan, where they list every obituary of a Filipino health-care worker they can find. Rosary’s was the first on the site.
And when I was talking to Rosary’s friend, Joyette, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sisterhood sitting on the plane back in 1977, and the ideas they must have had about what this country could be.
Hunte: I’m an immigrant to this country too. And one thing I can’t stop thinking about is the fact that, you know, as immigrants, you come to the United States for, you know, “a better life,” quote-unquote.
Hunte: And this experience has been so wild to me because it’s like, “No, but this is America.” Like, you know, has your thinking about America changed a lot because of this experience?
Jagolino: Yes! We actually, you know—my husband and I and a couple of friends, we said, “Okay, uh, do we go back home?” [Chuckles.] You know? “Do—do we consider getting our Filipino passports back, to get dual citizenship? Or consider Canada?” We talked about it. It—it is a disappointment, but I … my children are here.
So we’ll get through this. We will get through this, but this kind of shook the living daylights out of us.
And you want to believe that it’s still a great place to live. You know, it should still be a great place to live, if we could get our act together. But, uh, from an immigrant, yes, it is a disappointment to look back and say, “What happened? What—just, what happened?”
(Music plays—a record, looping endlessly, and then low droning notes.)
Hunte: I think, for me, it’s like, what do we owe these Filipino nurses who we depend so much on? And I think that that’s why Rosary’s story—it’s just very haunting to me.
But what we do know is that people’s lives are influenced by, you know, these really big historical economic forces that are very often out of their control. But, to people like Rosary and Gertrude and Nora, it’s just their life.
Tan: Rosary Celaya Castro-Olega, 63, passed away Sunday, March 20, 2020. Rosary was a caring and genuine individual who would put others before herself.
Nora: Even if she has finished a 12-hour shift at the hospital, she enjoyed life to the fullest, doing what she wanted, and went for it.
Tan: When it came to dancing, she danced like there was no tomorrow.
Nora: One of her favorite celebrities in the world was Kobe Bryant.
Tan: Funeral services have not been planned due to social distancing and the occurrence of the horrific coronavirus. Plants to celebrate Rosary’s beautiful life will be sent out once this pandemic has ended. Tribute by Rosary’s daughter, Tiffany Olega.
(The music plays up for a long moment.)
Natalia Ramirez: This episode of The Experiment was reported and produced by Tracie Hunte and Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Julia Longoria and Katherine Wells. Fact-checked by William Brennan and Stephanie Hayes. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Matt Collette, Alvin Melathe, and me, Natalia Ramirez.
We’re still a pretty new podcast, so if you like what you heard, tell a friend to listen to the show. And don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple Podcast, or wherever you listened to this episode.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening!
(The music continues for a long while before fading out with the sound of birds.)