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A Filipina Nurse On Working On The Front Lines Of The Pandemic

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A stretcher rattles...


MCCARTHY: ...In New York City's Presbyterian Queens Hospital.


MCCARTHY: Kym Villamer perches at the nurse's station among staff she calls her second family. Her real family sits a half a world away in the Philippines, where she recalls a childhood upended. At age 10, Villamer's parents left her, their youngest of seven, for the United States.

KYM VILLAMER: Before that, I was sleeping in their bedroom. We would pray together before bedtime. And that time, I was devastated to see them leave.

MCCARTHY: The U.S. Embassy denied her a visa to travel with her mother and father, but she says they kept their word to call every day and sent home many gifts for a young daughter pining for her parents. She came to understand the trade-off.

VILLAMER: That it was a difficult decision they have to make to, you know, provide a better future for our family. Now that I'm older, I think it's one of the best decisions they've made.

MCCARTHY: During the long parentless period, Villamer made her way to the doors of the University of St. Isabel, the oldest girl's school in Southeast Asia that goes from high school to postgraduate studies. With her parents' approval, Villamer was on her own at 14. She says the nuns called her an old soul with survival instincts.

VILLAMER: I was volunteering with different school organizations. I joined the debate team. I joined the young writers club. I was a dancer. I was a singer. I distracted myself.

MCCARTHY: A champion debater, Villamer envisioned a career in law. But her mother, who toiled at three jobs in the U.S., delivered an edict.

VILLAMER: Suddenly, my mom said, you are going to be a nurse. And I asked her, why? It's your passport to the American dream. And she actually threatened me, too. I'm not going to pay for your college if you don't become a nurse. So I said, OK. Fine (laughter).

MCCARTHY: Villamer returned to St. Isabel's (ph) and earned a degree in a profession that is now her passion.

VILLAMER: Who can't fall in love with a profession that allows you to spend so much time with these patients in the darkest of their days and to also spend the last moments of their life when their family's not around? Who can't fall in love with a profession as beautiful as that?

MCCARTHY: The coronavirus is relatively under control in New York City. Presbyterian Queens Hospital told NPR that its brave frontliners (ph) have saved more than 2,000 COVID-19 patients. Villamer says for her, walking into a patient's room was enough to conquer the fear of the virus.

VILLAMER: You forget about COVID, and all you see are just human beings who need you.

MCCARTHY: Villamer became a U.S. citizen last year, but she holds her Philippine roots close. Tapping a network of classmates, she raised money and material for fellow frontliners badly in need of PPE back home, reaching 27 cities and municipalities.

VILLAMER: I love my life here, but I recognize the fact that it's not easy for the people I left behind.

MCCARTHY: The team at Presbyterian Queens excels not only in caring for patients but for each other. During the height of the pandemic, Villamer joined a colleague and sang for stressed patients and staff, performances that became a daily ritual.


VILLAMER: (Singing) We will rise. We will rise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) We will rise.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.



VILLAMER: (Singing) We will rise.


And that was NPR's Julie McCarthy reporting on the Filipino nurses who are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS-JOACHIM ROEDELIUS' "BRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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