Fighting the unseen enemy: A young doctor’s badge of honor

By Dhel Nazario

“By going to work and doing our jobs, we give people a chance to live and survive against this unseen enemy.”

These are the words of Dr. Joseph Adrian Buensalido, 43, an infectious disease and internal medicine specialist, an awardee of the Balik Scientist Program, who, despite the risks, goes to work daily to follow his sworn duty as a medical frontliner in the war against COVID-19.

“The risk of getting COVID-19 is there every single moment of the day because our PPEs are not fool-proof. One small mistake and you can contaminate yourself. The fear is there, but you don’t dwell on it. You use an ounce of fear as fuel to keep your actions precise to prevent any misstep or contamination,” he said.

The doctor works as an infectious diseases consultant affiliated with the Makati Medical Center, Asian Hospital, Manila Doctors Hospital, and University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH), where he is a clinical associate professor.

Due to the bulk of patients these days, however, he has only been able to see patients in two of the private hospitals. But he still helps out in the Division of Infectious Diseases of UPPGH’s charity service.

It is teamwork that improves their day-to-day operations, he said. The teamwork is completed by doctors with different specialties who have volunteered to help the infectious disease specialists, pulmonologists, and critical care specialists to help fight the dreaded virus.

The Balik Scientist awardee recalled that one of his memorable experiences inside the hospital was when he and a colleague took over an entire infectious disease load of one hospital.

“We were just constantly working and fighting illness from 7 a.m. to 10-11 p.m., sleeping then waking up to fight again. Fighting and not allowing defeat until the reinforcements came is a memory that will forever be etched in my mind—a badge of honor,” he said.

Early intervention

Dr. Buensalido and his team have sent home many patients. He explained that the patients recovered because, aside from being obedient, they consulted while in the early stage of the illness.

The doctor has lost count of the patients who recovered and improved under their care. But he remembers when they sent home 10 patients in one day.

“My team and I were so happy that at the end of that day, although we were tired, feeling warm and suffocated under the PPEs, we had our picture taken with our hands formed into the number 10. Those were small victories we wanted to document, so that we can continue to be motivated as the crisis continues,” he recalled.

“I really think coming early for diagnosis and treatment made a difference, especially since their ages made them at very high risk for serious COVID-19 complications,” he added.

Like every other scene in a hospital, it does not always end like how they wish it to. As much as they want everyone to recover from the disease, the virus is a tough adversary.

The country has lost several doctors to COVID-19. Dr. Buensalido’s team lost a doctor, an ally in their fight against the disease. He said the doctor was infected during the early part of the first wave, when the hospitals were bombarded by the many cases of COVID-19, and while there was still much uncertainty on to how to beat the deadly virus.

But his team had also treated another colleague, a doctor, who was diagnosed with a severe kind of COVID-19, and he recovered.

“Honestly, during the early part of the first wave of this pandemic, we were truly hit hard because of the sheer number of patients pouring into the hospitals and, at the same time, there was still much uncertainty with regard to the medical management of this new coronavirus infection and disease,” he said.

But as they saw more cases, they were able to manage the diseases more efficiently and, as a result, made possible more recoveries. “These days, we are able to intervene at the appropriate time in patients’ illnesses, and so we are able to get more patients better and prevent many cases from worsening,” he added.

Going home to his disinfection unit

Due to the nature of his work, Dr. Buensalido, who goes home daily, practices the utmost precautions to protect his family. Married to dermatologist Dr. Jocel Buensalido, the frontliner doctor has two kids, Jaime (10) and Alexi, (5).

“If I am a frontliner, a ‘soldier’ who goes off to fight in this war against COVID-19, I call my wife the ‘general-in-charge’ tasked to keep our ‘headquarters’ and our ‘little soldiers’ safe and well-trained,” he said.

“When I get home, I enter the ‘disinfection unit’ that my wife made for me before I enter the house through the side door, blow kisses to my wife and kids, then go straight to the bathroom to shower so I can remove every single trace of virus that may have stuck to my body in the course of the day,” he explained. “Many times they would have already eaten especially since I come home late more days than not, and so they would sit with me so I could tell them how my day went, and they could tell me what happened to theirs.”

What drives him to keep serving the people?

“I cannot find the words right now, but the situation calls for all healthcare practitioners to step up, or else COVID-19 will ravage our world with fear, disease, and death. It is our time, and we will stand up to this bully of a disease,” he said. “Some of us may fall, and some have already succumbed to COVID-19, but as long as we take our precautions, and we prevent the virus from making us sick, we will be able to help more patients, get more of them better, until eventually we beat COVID-19 once and for all.”