Dr. Carmina Fuentebella’s story is one of triumph over adversity but it tells more than that.
Dr. Fuentebella is one of countless health professionals who stepped into the frontlines to care for others infected with SARS Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19, even if it meant putting their own lives on the line.
What she did easily qualifies her to be called a hero, but she wouldn’t call herself that.
At the UST Hospital, where she works, she saw up close how the virus wreaks havoc on the human body and how patients who got sick of COVID-19 needed care.
Until she contracted the disease herself days before her 27th birthday which she celebrated as a COVID-19 patient.
She found herself on the receiving end of the care she had been giving to the sick in an isolation room very similar to others she had been in as a doctor attending to her patients.
Mina to her family, friends and colleagues, Dr. Fuentebella went through a tunnel of emotions while in her hospital bed—anxiety, fear, pain, joy.
She had recently received convalescent plasma transfusion and is on her way to recovery.
In this Q&A with INQUIRER.net, Dr. Fuentebella narrates her struggle to survive and beat COVID-19. Her story is not only about overcoming adversity, it is about the human spirit’s immeasurable immunity against the deadliest of viruses.
Q: Could you tell us about the time you found out that you had been infected? What was the initial thought in your mind? This might sound like a stupid question, but were you immediately scared?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: My initial thought was that I’d eventually get through it without much problems. Being in the medical field, I’ve seen and handled COVID-19 patients so I thought I knew the most likely course of the disease.
Usually, only patients who were a lot older or those with already preexisting conditions were prone to greater risks and suffered severe symptoms.
On top of that, some of my colleagues my age or a bit older experienced only mild symptoms. With all that in mind, I wasn’t really scared—mainly because I knew what I had to do.
Q: I read on your Facebook posts that there was so much support that came your way. But since protocol prevents friends and loved ones from getting near you, how were you able to convert all those messages of support into courage and the will to emerge victorious in the fight against this virus?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: During the first week of the treatment, it was so difficult that I had to be sedated a lot—so I couldn’t really remember much.
But I do recall times when I was awake and conscious, and during these times I would go through my inbox and I’d see all these messages coming from all these people. At first, it was mostly just my family and friends who messaged me and motivated me.
But apparently without much of my knowledge, a post of me being sick went viral online and all of a sudden I got all these messages from a LOT of people.
Every day I would see messages like “You’re a fighter! Don’t give up!” or those that were just trying to find out if I was still okay. In the latter days, I even started receiving video messages from my friends.
There was even a day when I woke up in the ICU and saw that my co-workers posted photos of my family, friends, and what not on the walls of the room I was in.
Having seen all of these, even just for brief periods, I felt so loved, so wanted. All along I thought I had been fighting alone, but through all of their efforts I realized that I had people who were sharing the burden with me—and they were all waiting for me, cheering for me with all they could, even if they couldn’t sit by my side.
I couldn’t count the times I almost gave up, but each time I looked at the walls of my room or checked my messages, I couldn’t help but think that I had to fight. I had to live.
Q: I also read on your posts some thoughts you had about thinking whether you had reached dead end and I’m so glad you had gone past those dark moments. What was going on in your mind during those moments? What were your thoughts about?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: During the time I was intubated, just the thought that I had this really long thick tube pushed down my throat gave me the worst pain and discomfort I never even imagined.
Added on top of all the symptoms I felt due to the virus, it all just felt like I was slowly being killed. I could literally feel the clock ticking each of its seconds. Minutes felt like hours, and I couldn’t even bring myself to sleep. Each time that I did fall asleep, I would eventually wake up—still intubated and in unimaginable pain—and I couldn’t help but curse the world for still keeping me alive.
If it weren’t thoughts of pain or wanting to pull out the tube that was literally my life-support system, my mind would just be blank. The nurses and doctors said they recalled numerous times when I just stared blankly into nothing.
When I read messages from my family and friends giving me all this support, there were honestly times when I ended up with such negative thoughts. “It’s only easy for them to say it because they weren’t the ones suffering,” I thought.
I would even question God why I had to suffer such misfortune. I was just doing my job as a doctor, I was helping my patients even if it cost me my sleep and my own health, why did it I have to endure all of that pain?
I still had so much I wanted to do. I wanted to be this great doctor, I wanted to travel the world, I wanted to raise my own family, but each day was another needle, another ounce of blood, and I couldn’t help but want to give up.
I knew I needed all these injections and extractions, but it was just so painful to have all at once that I seriously just wanted to end things and even give up my own life.
Q: I also read about you celebrating your 27th birthday in hospital and it’s kind of touching. Can you tell us how you celebrated it? Like did anyone send you cake? Since this virus is such a killjoy about celebrations, what happy thoughts were ongoing in your mind during your birthday?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: Quite frankly, I had no expectations. Being in an isolation unit, I knew they weren’t allowed to visit me for long. On top of that, UST’s area was on an even more enhanced lockdown.
When I woke up on that day, however, I saw nurses putting up a “Happy Birthday” banner on the walls of the ICU with all these balloons. My friends got to prepare me cakes, and residents from the same department even came to me and sang me a ‘Happy Birthday Song’ fully dressed in their PPEs.
Unlike my past birthdays, I also received a lot of video greetings this year from my friends, my family and a lot of other people as well.
I thought that was the conclusion of what ought to be the most unconventional birthday yet, but around 4 pm, I received another video message from my UST Internal Medicine family.
I was so touched that I just burst into tears feeling all that love. This birthday felt like a second chance at life, and it’s definitely one of my most memorable birthdays yet!
Q: Did your ordeal with the virus change the way you look at health care? Like was it a bummer to be in the health care profession and get direct exposure to the risks? If you traveled through time and would start again, would you take the same path?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: This ordeal definitely changed some of my views, especially towards my profession. I mean, I became a doctor aware of the risks of infection and all, but I definitely didn’t expect that an infection such as COVID-19 would make me suffer through all of that pain.
Regardless of that, however, I would still choose to become a doctor. It is more than fulfilling for me to be able to serve the country in this time of crisis, caring for those in more special need than me.
At least now I know something that scary existed, and I just have to be extra careful in carrying out my responsibilities as a health care professional.
Q: Physical separation from your friends, loved ones and family could be one of the toughest or loneliest parts of getting this virus, but knowing they’re still there could compensate for not actually touching their hands or feeling their hugs. How would you advise those going through the same episode of isolation in terms of keeping it together in the mind like being stronger mentally.
DR. FUENTEBELLA: I’m not sure if I’m one to give advice on this, because I personally had the most difficult time maintaining my own mental and emotional stability during the entire episode of my infection.
But I guess what kept me going was actually feeling that I was loved and people wanted me to stay alive.
Seeing or hearing people celebrate all these little improvements in my health—waking up, being able to wave at them—made me realize that people actually cared for someone like me, and they were enduring the difficultly as I was the entire time.
So to those who would end up experiencing the same situation of isolation, just know that people care about you.
There are people out there who are willing to carry all the weight with you—if only they physically could. There are people waiting for you with arms wide open to fully heal from what you are suffering through. There are people praying that you can continue to carry out your purpose, and that there are people definitely excited to see you again, regardless of what or who you may be.
I feel like the biggest source of one’s mental instability in these types of situations is the thought that there’s no one with you, and they won’t even care when you go away—but I guess knowing that this isn’t all true, although it may only be a little thread of hope, might be enough for you to hold out a bit longer.
Q: Are you returning to the frontlines after your recovery? Would anything change if you return to duty?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: Yes, I will return to the frontlines after fully recovering. I personally feel like I have been doing my best this entire time as a doctor, but I guess I’ll be adjusting the way I handle my patients.
I’ve always prayed to God that I would someday be a great doctor, and perhaps this ordeal I had experienced was something He gave me so I can learn to empathize more with what my patients are going through.
It is a doctor’s job to cure his patients, but it takes more than just knowledge of Medicine to fully cure those who are suffering. With this empathy, I hope to let my patients know that they are not carrying the burden of their illnesses alone, that there is someone who will fight with them—the same way all those people did for me.
Q: Being still very young, did you expect at all to contract the virus? Like, the myth about the young being almost spared by this virus has already been busted, did it surprise you that someone as young as you would be hit by this virus?
DR. FUENTEBELLA: I did expect the possibility of getting the virus, but I didn’t expect to be in critical condition.