MARAWI CITY (MindaNews / 10 Sep) – When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, only one hospital catered to patients infected with the virus in Marawi City and the 39 municipalities of Lanao del Sur. Named after Maranao hero Amai Pakpak or Datu Akadir Akobar who resisted the Spanish colonial invaders, the Amai Pakpak Medical Center (APMC) happens to be led by a woman physician, Dr. Shalimar Sani-Rakiin.
Rakiin was appointed to head the facility starting in August 2018. It proved to be no easy task, but the real test as hospital chief came in 2020 when the pandemic reached Lanao del Sur itself.
Northern Mindanao recorded in March 2020 its first COVID-19 case. But the patient was a resident of Lanao del Sur who was transferred to Cagayan de Oro City for isolation. It marked the beginning of the struggles of the APMC during the pandemic.
Early on during the pandemic, things weren’t difficult for the medical center even if most buildings were still being built and equipment were lacking since there were few cases yet. However, by August 2020, the cases surged with the arrival of returning overseas workers and locally stranded individuals. The 150 beds allocated for COVID-19 cases were no longer enough.
The succeeding days saw the APMC confronting the problems of lack of manpower, medical equipment and budget for other necessities. Frontline workers experienced having to sleep in the corridors due to lack of rooms to accommodate them.
Fortunately, aside from Rakiin herself, the center employs specialists in various fields of medicine. They include Mohamad Alisar Abdullatif, a sought-after internist and pulmonologist whose wife is also a physician; Abdel Hussein Dianalan-Lucman, an internist and gastroenterologist; Alexis Ali Gutoc, orthopedic; Monreza Macaraya-Guiling, anesthesiologist; Sahar Darling Usman Disomangcop, pediatrician; Minda Lanto Macagaan-Baruang, radiologist; Ali Macatanong, cardiovascular specialist.
There are other doctors in the center too who have chosen to help their bangsa (homeland) instead of working in high-paying hospitals in the metropolis. Nonetheless, the only hospital in Lanao del Sur attending to COVID-19 cases encountered more problems, including a shortage of medical oxygen supply, with the emergence of the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus.
As of mid-September 2021, the APMC continued to operate beyond capacity. The week before that, its COVID-19 wards were 113% full while its intensive care unit was overstretched to 130%, according to Dr. Alinader Minalang, provincial health officer and provincial deputy chairman of Lanao del Sur’s COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force.
“We regret to notify the public that we are experiencing a shortage of medical oxygen supply since our suppliers can no longer provide our needed oxygen requirement,” Rakiin said.
Minalang said APMC’s medical oxygen requirement significantly increased from 200 tanks to nearly 500 tanks per day, and with the more transmissible Delta variant threatening the province, officials were anticipating the worst. He said Lanao del Sur had about 900 tanks of oxygen when he checked the week before the interview, and the supply was only good for two days. “We are now running out of oxygen supply. This is our biggest challenge in this new surge.”
Lanao del Sur has been dependent on Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, cities in the neighboring Northern Mindanao region, for its medical oxygen supply. But the rising demand has overwhelmed the manufacturers there, Minalang said. Aside from depleted stocks, he said, the refilling process was very slow, and the suppliers could no longer cope with the demand.
Among all these issues and challenges, Rakiin remained steadfast with her leadership and guidance to the staff and members of the APMC. Two days after the 1,181 vials of Sinovac vaccine arrived at the center in March 2021, she was the first to be vaccinated. In a speech which called out to the frontliners who have had to endure wearing PPEs for more than a year, she said:
“Today, hope comes at APMC doorsteps in the form of the Sinovac vaccine. As health workers, we are just few of those listed in the first priority to receive this vaccine and we are grateful. In return, we are encouraged to become advocates to people who are hesitant to receive this vaccine because of misinformation. We must see every opportunity to educate them. It is our responsibility as health workers to give hope and healing,”
To date, Rakiin still leads the APMC, achieving a track record of near-zero casualty from the virus before the wave of locally stranded individuals and returning overseas Filipino workers. She could even boast that local prominent individuals like the provincial governor and the Minister of Health of the autonomous government who tested positive for the virus preferred treatment at APMC rather than in Metro Manila or nearby Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities.
Under her leadership the center’s accreditation as a medical institution was raised from Level 2 to Level 3 in just two years after she was appointed, enabling the hospital to shape and train a new generation of doctors.
When asked how she managed to turn APMC around in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said:
“Even before I came in, I already had a vision of what APMC should be. Though there already was a pre-existing vision, it was already met by the previous Chief. So when I came in, along with the workforce, we revisioned what we wanted to be… We realized that APMC should have a multi-specialty center.”
Rakiin’s vision of APMC becoming a multi-specialist center includes a heart and lung institute, a regional unit specializing in these fields, along with its already existing eye center, most of which would be available within this year. Soon, a cancer center would be realized, too. All for the service of her bangsa.
APMC recently partnered with the Philippine Eyebank Foundation. Among those who benefited from the partnership was an 11-year-old boy who underwent a successful cornea transplant.
Rakiin is not just a fountain of inspiration for other women, but is an example of what women are capable of despite what seems to be impossible in the face of a pandemic. She had enabled the center to not just survive the pandemic, but also to thrive notwithstanding the pressure of being the only COVID-19 hospital in the province. It even acquired new capabilities to attain the vision of becoming a competitive medical center right in the heart of Mindanao.
Rakiin, a widow and mother of four, remarked that she treats APMC as her child and wishes it to achieve what mothers want their children to become.
(Merlyn T. Manos worked as agency manager and writer at Mindanao Goldstar Daily from 1998 to 2002. She has been correspondent for GMA-7 since 2000, and correspondent of Rappler since August 2022.)
This piece was produced through a story grant from UNESCO Multi-Donor Program on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists. The editorial process was left entirely to MindaNews.