NEW YORK CITY: Filipino American nurse Menchu Sanchez has become the toast of the four million-strong ethnic Filipino community in the United States, after she was publicly commended by President Barack Obama for devising a plan to evacuate high-risk babies at the height of Hurricane Sandy.
Sanchez, a registered nurse and transport coordinator for the New York University Langone Medical Center’s pediatrics unit, was cited by Obama for being a model for service and helping others “usually without fanfare.” “We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez,” Obama said during his February 12 State of the State of the Union address. “When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring — they were with the 20 precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.” As the television cameras zoomed in, Menchu broke into a big smile. First Lady Michelle Obama and Mrs. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, who flanked the Pinay nurse, were clapping and cheering. “That was for me a profound and moving experience,” Menchu told the Manila Times in an interview. “I am really humbled and deeply honored. It’s hard to put into words how I felt that time.” On that fateful October 29, Sanchez, 56, was working her usual 10-hour night shift when Sandy knocked out power in most of the city. The power outage triggered the hospital’s backup generators to kick in at 6 p.m. But after about two hours, surging floodwater from the East River submerged the generators, plunging the medical center into darkness.
As the person in charge of transporting the 60 plus patients of the whole pediatric wing, Menchu knew it was crunch time: in a few hours, the ventilators keeping the fragile newborns alive would stop working. “We knew we had to move as fast as possible and evacuate those sweet tiny babies to other area hospitals,” said Sanchez, who has worked at NYU medical center for 18 years. “With the elevators out, we had no other choice but to use the stairs.” First to be evacuated were four babies hooked up to ventilators. Menchu grabbed an infant who had recently undergone surgery and weighed less than a pound. She cradled the newborn in her left arm, while 10 others carried a portable life support machine, monitors and IV bags. As they made their way down the nine flights of stairs, step -by-careful-step, one of them was saying, “step, step, step,” to make sure their movements are synchronized. And as a precaution, one nurse walked backward to prevent anyone from falling forward with the infant. As soon as the group reached the ground floor, Menchu sat carefully at the waiting stretcher, delicately holding the baby in her arms and squeezing some of the tubes between her legs to keep them from falling. She rode with three other babies to other hospitals. Several groups of nurses, doctors and therapists repeated the trip over and over again, until each of the babies had been transported to other area hospitals like Mt. Sinai, St. Luke’s, Cornell and others. 4- hour evacuation It took about four hours — from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. — to finish evacuating all the babies. Menchu managed to make a quick call to check how her family was doing as footages of widespread flooding and destruction were beamed on television almost nonstop. Her husband said that everyone was safe, but the entire ground level of their house went under three feet of water. After it was over, hospital officials lauded Menchu for finding a way to get all the babies to safety. Kimberly Glassman, senior vice president for patient care services, told a nursing publication that it was the Pinay nurse who thought of taking the babies down in a warming pad, cradled in the arms of a single nurse to keep them warm and secure. Recalling those crucial moments of that long night of October 29, Menchu said that she prayed hard that everything would work out well, that all the babies would be safe and sound. “I thank God everything went surprisingly well. I also thank the doctors, therapists, nurses and other hospital workers for their unselfish efforts,” Menchu said. “The teamwork was unbelievable, and I know almost all us worked 24 hours, or more straight that night.”
Born and raised in the remote coastal town of Catanauan, Quezon province, Menchu is the middle child and the only girl of a hardworking couple. Her father, Macario de Luna, a schoolteacher, died when Menchu was barely three years old. Her mother, Simona Rea, was left to raise her three children and sent them to college from her income as a dressmaker, which she augmented with the harvest from a small coconut farm she inherited from her parents. Nanay Simona, 83, as the de Luna matriarch is fondly called, now lives with Menchu’s family in Secaucus, New Jersey. She is, of course, justifiably proud that her unica hija has become the face of the tens of thousand hard-working Filipino nurses in America and around the world. Menchu, who as a girl dreamed of studying and working abroad to give material comfort to her mom and siblings, went to grade and high school at the Southern Luzon Academy. She then moved to the big city, taking up pre-nursing at the University of the East. She took her internship at the Mary Chiles Hospital in Sampaloc, Manila and finished her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the Remedios Trinidad Romualdez Memorial School — named after the late mother of former first lady Imelda Marquez — at the prestigious Makati Medical Center.
Soon after finishing her nursing degree, Menchu applied and got a well-paying job as nurse in Saudi Arabia, where she worked nearly 10 years. She met and married her husband, Judith Sevilla Sanchez, a fellow overseas Filipino worker from Malabon City, who worked as a medical technologist there. “Don’t ask me how he got his name,” she joked, “All we know is that he was named after the biblical heroine because his father wanted to name all his children after saints and biblical heroes.” The Sanchez couple has two children, both pre-med students: Jude McAnne, 20, a junior biochemistry student at the Seton Hall University in New Jersey; and Michelle Jude, 19, who is enrolled in a biology course of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Seggy Acosta, who owns and runs the Stress Center, a stress and pain management clinic with branches in Fredericksburg and Manassas, Virginia, said that her heart swelled with pride for Sanchez’ “heroic” work at the height of Sandy. Model nurse “What Menchu Sanchez did to get those infants to safety is simply amazing and heart warming,” said Acosta, a University of Santo Tomastrained nurse and a former long-time clinical nurse specialist in psychiatric mental health. “She was a model nurse, truly true to the nurse’s credo of putting the interest of the patients ahead of her own, and I’m, really, really proud of her.” Acosta’s husband, Leo, also a veteran registered nurse, currently connected with the Inova Fairfax Hospital, observed that nurses are well trained to deal with emergency situations, like what happened at the NYU Medical Center. “It’s nice to know that a fellow Filipino like Menchu stepped up to the challenge and she richly deserves credit for it. To be called out by President Obama for a job well done during his speech — that’s pretty cool,” said Acosta, an immigrant from Dinalupihan, Bataan province. Bediens Villarivera, a Filipino American retired nurse originally from Majayjay, Laguna province, said that the accolade and attention bestowed on Sanchez is a tribute to the health care and nursing profession which, she said, demands so much sacrifice and dedication from these professionals. “Being a nurse, especially in a hospital environment, is no easy task. Nurses work hard and often for long hours,” Villarivera, a resident of Chantilly, Virginia, said in Filipino.
Grace Valera, a former diplomat-turned-migrant advocate, said that Menchu’s feat “highlighted the caring, nurturing nature deeply embedded in the Filipino culture.” “That’s why we take pride in the fact that Filipinos are the most sought-after ethnic group in the nursing and health care professions,” said Valera, a co-executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Migrant Heritage Commission. “Our nurses not only do their work diligently /well; they are willing to walk the extra mile for their patients.” To this day, Filipinos comprise the biggest number of foreign-trained nurses, who have found their way in thousands hospitals across America, according to a study by Edward Schumacher. Citing data from 1995 to 2008, Schumacher said that 33.5 percent of all nurses hired from abroad were Filipinos, with Canadians a distant second at 12.6 percent, followed by Indians at 6.3 percent, Jamaicans at 4.1 percent and English at 3.1 percent. The same study showed that Filipino and other foreigneducated nurses could be found in states with bigger populations: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Illinois. Because of the economic slowdown and growing supply of home-grown health professionals, the United States has temporarily stopped hiring Filipino nurses, who remains preferred by American hospitals. The positive publicity generated by Sanchez and others like her assures that Pinoy nurses will always be in great demand in America and in other countries as well.