For the majority of her 69 years, Celia Yap-Banago dedicated her life to her patients, carrying out her nursing duties.
But just weeks before she was set to celebrate her 40th anniversary at the hospital, the tables turned as she became the one needing care after contracting the coronavirus.
Yap-Banago died on April 21 at age 69, her son told CNN. Tuesday would have marked her 40th anniversary at the hospital.
Now, her colleagues, and the nurses’ union she was a member of, hope her death will raise awareness about the lack of personal protective equipment.
They want to push hospitals and government leaders to acquire more for the nurses and other health care workers on the front lines of this crisis.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, Yap-Banago told her family not to worry because she was working in the cardiac telemetry unit, which is on a different floor than where coronavirus patients were being treated.
But on March 23, one of her patients started showing symptoms of Covid-19, according to her son, Jhulan Banago.
“It was a Monday when I got a text from my mom saying, ‘Hey, I just had a patient that was showing Covid-19 symptoms,’ a ‘just be careful’ kind of thing,” Banago, 28, told CNN.
As many other health care workers across the US have expressed, Yap-Banago raised concerns about the lack of PPE at her hospital, according to her son.
Collectively, the nurses at RMC raised concerns of “insufficient supplies of the optimal personal protective equipment for RNs and other health care workers, delays in notifying nurses of being exposed to a suspected infected patients and staff and expected to continue reporting to work when exposed,” National United Nurses, Yap-Banago’s union, said in a statement.
Christine Hamele, HCA Midwest Health System spokeswoman, called the allegations of exposure “vague.”
“We screen all individuals entering the hospital, including our colleagues and we follow CDC and state health department guidelines on the notification of any individuals who may have been in contact with a suspected COVID patient,” she said in an email statement to CNN. “As important, if a colleague is quarantined per the CDC guidelines and works in a patient care facility, we will pay 100 percent of base pay for up to two weeks, regardless of where the exposure occurred.”
Charlene Carter, a registered nurse at RMC who worked with Yap-Banago for seven years, first treated the patient before handing her off to Yap-Banago.
After seeing that the patient was exhibiting potential coronavirus symptoms, Carter said she raised her concerns to her charge nurse, who then relayed those concerns to higher-ups.
“They assured my charge nurse that they were not treating this patient as if she has Covid-19,” Carter told CNN. “It was already an understanding that if you didn’t have a positive Covid patient, they didn’t want you to use PPE unnecessarily.”
Carter said that the PPE was placed in a centralized location for the floors that worked with confirmed and probable coronavirus patients.
When asked about Carter’s assertion, Hamele declined to comment further.
Two days after treating the patient, Yap-Banago learned that the patient had tested positive for the virus, according to her son.
So, she took extra precautions to avoid potentially spreading the virus by isolating herself away from her husband and sleeping on the living room couch.
“It wasn’t until maybe that Sunday (March 29) where it started to take a turn for the worst,” Banago said. “Her fever got up to over 101 and she wasn’t eating so that’s when we swapped her back into her room and dad came out to the living room. Once she went in that Sunday, she did not leave.”
While there’s no way to tell exactly if she contracted the virus from the patient, Yap-Banago’s test for the virus came back positive, her son said. Carter told CNN that she herself had also tested positive for the virus.
Unlike many other coronavirus patients who need to be hooked up to a ventilator, Yap-Banago never experienced shortness of breath so she didn’t admit herself into a hospital, Banago said.
She started to seem like she was getting better, Banago said, but after being bedridden for two and a half weeks, the virus took its toll.
“I saw her from the door and she was kind of just in a weird position,” he recalled. “That’s when I went up to her and she was unresponsive.”
Honoring her legacy
Banago remembered his mother as a strong woman who successfully fulfilled her American dream after immigrating from the Philippines. Even though she loved her work, she never missed either of her sons’ baseball and basketball games.
Yap-Banago was also a mother figure to many of the young nurses at the hospital.
“She never had a daughter so her coworkers became the daughters she never had,” Jhulan Banago said. “She was always keeping up with their lives… I have pictures of her braiding one of her coworker’s hair and them just messing around. They loved her just as much as we (her family) do.”
On Thursday night, her coworkers, family and friends held a vigil outside the hospital holding candles and pictures of Yap-Banago.
“She loved being a union nurse – that was really important to her,” one of her coworkers said during the vigil, a video of which was shared on Twitter by National Nurses United. “Part of that was her expressing her concern about the safety here at the hospital.”
“Celia didn’t have to die if she had the proper PPE so from now on we nurses should be fighting for proper PPE so none of us will also die,” another coworker said during the vigil, before reading off the names of other nurses across the US who have died due to Covid-19.
Earlier this month, nurses from Research Medical Center joined a nationwide protest at 16 hospitals owned by HCA Healthcare, blaming one of the nation’s largest hospital chains of being ill-prepared for the coronavirus pandemic, according to National Nurses United.
Carter said while availability of PPE at Research Medical Center has improved since then, it’s still not enough.
In a statement issued to CNN, Hamele expressed her condolences to Yap-Banago’s family.
“It is difficult to put into words what Celia means to our hospital and to the countless number of patients she cared for,” Hamele said. “Her impact on the nursing profession and to those she worked with will be everlasting due to the mentorship, training, support and guidance she provided our colleagues.”
HCA Midwest, however, disputed the claims made by National Nurses United.
“Research Medical Center’s preparedness and planning started months ago, and since the outset of the pandemic, we have followed guidelines on PPE from infections disease experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We continue to do everything in our power to help ensure the protection of our colleagues, not only today, but into the future as the pandemic continues to evolve,” Hamele said.
HCA implemented a universal masking policy across all of its hospitals in late March, according to a post on its website. But that was after Yap-Banago treated the patient.
On Tuesday, the nurses at Research Medical Center were supposed to gather to celebrate the 40 years that Yap-Banago had dedicated to the hospital. But now, nurse Michelle Fleschner wrote on Facebook that her colleagues will gather to remember the life of their heroic coworker, who is gone too soon.