The Stuff of Heroism

In his State of the Union address last week, US President Barack Obama paid tribute to Filipino-American nurse Menchu de Luna Sanchez for her heroism. While typhoon Sandy was pummeling New York City last November, she planned and supervised the transfer of 20 newborn babies from NYU’s Langone Medical Center, which the storm had plunged into darkness, to safer intensive care units in the city.

She had the babies wrapped in warming pads, then led doctors and nurses, cradling the babies in their arms, down a stairway with only their hand phones lighting the way. Other personnel pumped oxygen and bore vital hospital equipment.

Meanwhile, Sandy’s floodwaters were wrecking the nurse’s own home in New Jersey.

Born and educated in the Philippines, Menchu deserves all of the praises from President Obama and the mass media. She took the paeans, I like to think, in trust for her co-workers at Langone, and the countless health care workers everywhere who are doing extraordinary services for their fellow human beings. That a great many of them are Filipino nurses who moved to the United States, like Menchu did in the 1980s, is a quirk of history.

In 1901, while American troops were still fighting a bloody colonial war against Filipino revolutionaries, 540 American public school teachers on board the USS Thomas landed in Manila and transplanted the US public school system on Philippine soil. Thousands more “Thomasites” would come over and win the hearts and minds of the Filipinos who, as a result, adopted English as their second language.

Over the decades, this educational system produced English-speaking Filipino nurses trained according to US standards. But it was not until after the Philippines regained independence in 1945 that the first wave of Filipino nurses immigrated to the United States under an exchange visitor program that showcased American democracy to other nations.

Another large wave of Filipino nurses immigrated to America in 1965, when the country relaxed its immigration laws for Asians. In those days, a Filipino nurse could go to the United States as a tourist and find employment in one of the big hospitals. That no longer works today: there are many barriers to immigration and stiff requirements for licenses to practice.

But Filipino nurses have become a robust pillar of the American medical care regime. According to the Philippine Nurses Association of America, of the 21,500 foreign-trained registered nurses who took the qualifying exams in 2005, some 55 percent were Filipinos.

The money they remit home is huge. It forms a good part of some $24 billion that overseas Filipinos contributed last year to an economic growth rate of 6.6 percent, the second highest in Asia.

The usual explanation for the high demand for Filipino nurses in the United States is that they are willing to work longer hours for much lower pay. Assuming that’s true, it’s not the whole story.

An Indian recruiter who supplies American hospitals with foreign nurses once told me American patients prefer Asian nurses, especially Filipinos, because they are not only well trained, they are also more caring. He said patients aren’t happy with nurses who may be efficient but are rather businesslike. Filipino nurses bond with their patients. They work as if they’re taking care of their own relatives.

This is a trait that marks people who find fulfillment in life, whatever is their calling and their nationality — a willingness to serve others in ways beyond what has been contracted or expected, including a great capacity for empathy and a readiness to sacrifice.

Basically, this is the stuff of heroism, the kind unfurled by a 56-year-old nurse against the fury of typhoon Sandy. Thank God for all the Menchu Sanchezes of the world.

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