For Generations, Filipino Nurses Have Been On America’s Front Lines

For Generations, Filipino Nurses Have Been On America’s Front Lines

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Elizabeth Capadngan is a nurse at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham, Maryland. She is among the Filipino nurses who have had their lives documented by photographer Rosem Morton.

Jennifer Bulaong kept a close tally of her work hours.

She arrived in the United States in 2019 with a group of fellow nurses from the Philippines, landing first in Florida before being deployed to a hospital in Missouri. And thus started her count: 5,200 hours in three years, the terms of the contract she signed with her recruitment agency. After that, she was free to permanently join the rest of her family, which had been waiting for her in Maryland since 2016.

“That became the goal, the target,” she said.

For years, she kept her head down and chipped away at the hours to close the gap between time zones, from 12 hours, to one, to none. It’s a story familiar to many other families in the diaspora, a story of distance and hard-fought reunion. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Bulaong and many other Filipino nurses like her found themselves part of another story with larger roles: frontline workers.

Jennifer Bulaong’s mother, Leane, is also a nurse. She’s seen at right, next to her youngest daughter, Jillian, who is on her laptop for a virtual nursing class. On the left is Jillian’s grandmother Ricolia Ramos.

Jennifer, left, visits her family in Maryland in September 2020. Here, they cook Filipino food for her to take back home.

Jennifer, left, hugs her family goodbye before flying back to Missouri.

“During those first few months of Covid, you just had to focus. I had to do this, I had to help,” Bulaong said. “It took a few months for everything to sink in. I was (in) work mode.”

Grim statistics emerged as the pandemic continued, highlighting how it disproportionately affected Filipinos and other healthcare workers of color. Filipinos make up 4% of registered nurses in the United States, according to National Nurses United, the country’s largest nursing union. But according to a February 2021 report published by the group, 26.4% of nurses who died from Covid-19 and related complications in the United States were Filipino. They accounted for 83 nurses out of the 314 deaths where race and ethnicity data was available.

These numbers bring to light a community whose role in the larger national story is often untold. And perhaps few are better suited to document this intersection than photographer and nurse Rosem Morton, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was 17.

Ernest Capadngan holds his newborn daughter, Eliana Grace, while his wife, Elizabeth, fills out their daily infant report. They both work as nurses in Maryland. Lovella Eugenio falls asleep in her car after she arrives home from work. She juggles two full-time nursing jobs. At the onset of the pandemic, Morton used her photographs to show the world inside of a Baltimore hospital, chronicling how she and everyone around her adjusted to new regulations and processes, and how the threat of infection loomed over the quiet moments at home with her partner, who is also a nurse.

Her current project, “Diaspora on the Frontlines” — supported by the National Geographic Society’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists — is an extension of that earlier work. It seeks to reveal the inner lives of Filipino nurses and their families beyond stories of trauma.

When Morton was younger, she says she was often asked questions such as: “Why is your English so good? Why are there so many Filipino nurses? Why are you here taking our jobs?” They’re the kind of questions many immigrants like her encountered; questions to which she only had vague answers. But the deeper she dove into researching the history that informed this project — the connections that continue to tie the United States and the Philippines together — the more she found a foothold into those answers.

Brian Chavez, left, and Mark Abordo get ready for work. They are both night-shift nurses in Baltimore.

Abordo, left, and Chavez leave the hospital after a shift. They try to match their schedules as much as possible.

Chavez gets ready for bed. He often works back-to-back shifts in the hospital.

All the nurses Morton worked with came into contact with Covid-19 patients.

She photographed Lovella Eugenio leaning affectionately on her husband as he plays the guitar. Eugenio, who works in the same hospital as Morton, juggles two full-time nursing jobs and battled through her own coronavirus diagnosis.

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For generations, Filipino nurses have been on America’s front lines

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