Helping people may be rewarding and fulfilling but having to face at least four dozen people with various heart-wrenching problems can take a toll on those extending assistance too. Time spent often starts and beyond official work hours, involves creativity in finding solutions to unique problems and demands empathy even when one’s exhausted heart already has so little to give.
“It’s such a good feeling every time I am able to help patients. I find sense of fulfillment,” said 57-year-old widow Tenina Ng, one of the front line workers of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office based at the Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City.
Every working day for the past 19 years, Tenina would wake up before dawn so she could get to the office before 6 a.m. where she usually finds people already in line, seeking help for loved ones who are in the hospital for various medical reasons.
Their needs usually involve money for hospital bills that have run to millions of pesos, medical procedures that are needed for the survival of loved ones or medicine that they can hardly afford but necessary for recovery. Sometimes, there is a distressed teenage mother pleading for formula for her infant child.
Ng’s job is to sort out patients, ensure that the required documents are in order, and direct them to the social worker in charge of such cases.
“We’re a government agency so documentation is very important. Sometimes, people who are very worried forget that we are handling public funds that have to be accounted for,” she said in Filipino.
Ten minutes is rarely enough time to resolve the problems and ease the concerns of upset and agitated patients, but that is all the time the handful of social workers at the Lung Center extension office can give because dozens more are also in line waiting for their turn.
PCSO General Manager Alexander Balutan said they have tried to introduce innovations to make public services more efficient, like the At-Source-Ang-Processing (ASAP) Desk which involves putting up a help desk in 57 partner hospitals nationwide.
“Aside from increasing revenues in order to raise our charity fund, we have also tried to implement new efficiencies, but we still have a long way to go,” Balutan said.
At the Lung Center alone, only 15 social workers have to deal with more than 700 patients every day, many of whom come from nearby hospitals. For the provinces, one social worker is assigned in each PCSO branch to look into patients’ concerns
Ethel Lovino, who has been a social worker for 22 years and works at the PCSO’s ASAP Desk, also handles requests from seven hospitals out of 57 ASAP partners.
She processes requests for financial assistance from the seven hospitals, validates them and makes the appropriate recommendation for the issuance of guarantee letters where PCSO promises to pay for the needed medication, procedure or bill of a particular patient.
Although Metro Manila gets the biggest chunk of its charity resources, PCSO also serves patients in other parts of the country so the funds have to be managed and rules have to be enforced to make sure the most number of people are served appropriately.
“Sometimes, very distraught people can’t understand that we have limited resources and they get angry when we can’t help them. We try to direct them to other government agencies,” the dedicated social worker said.
“They don’t know that we also feel very bad when we can’t give them the help that we personally want to give them because we feel the difficulty of their situation,” she added.
“I also feel very bad when people don’t get the assistance they were seeking. I’m also affected, I think about it even when I get home,” Ng interjected.
Commendations and complaints
When things go right, however, Mary Ann Cunanan learned nothing can be more satisfying when an elderly woman publicly lauds the concerned social worker for doing something that comes so naturally.
“She really pushed our papers so that my husband can get his dialysis before the deadline,” 62-year-old Mama Rose said of Cunanan.
Unknown to most people, social workers are very prone to depression. Their daily exposure to the stress experienced by their clients also affects their physical, mental and emotional well-being. And they can also be targets of a distressed person’s ire.
Social workers Roland Gamboa and Enrique Cristobal both learned through separate complaints that people distraught by difficult challenges can easily misinterpret ordinary situations as personal affronts.
“I was traumatized,” Gamboa said. “I had to explain [the circumstances]at the Office of the General Manager. You really have to explain to a patient very well so as not to be misinterpreted.”
Cristobal, on the other hand, learned to transform a personal trait – his naturally strong voice – to serve people better.
“I had to learn to speak more softly, because patients complained that I was shouting at them,” Cristobal said.
Through a public feedback mechanism implemented by Raymondo Liwag, chief of staff of GM Balutan, both Gamboa and Cristobal were recently commended for the satisfaction patients expressed on their services.
Sacrificing family duties
Personal lives of social workers also take hits from their work. For one, Lovino admits feeling guilty for spending so little time for her own three children because she has to go home late due to the needs of her patients. She thanks her husband, also a PCSO employee, for understanding her dedication to her profession.
“I am forever grateful for being a part of the PCSO family. This work is very noble. Just being part of helping people is enough. My only wish is I won’t get sick, so I could still help lots of patients,” she said.
Although Ng didn’t study social work, she has also taken strong knocks in her adopted profession when she was once laid off because of a “rationalization program” at the PCSO.
She stayed at the PCSO without a salary for almost a year, waiting for the chance of a vacancy, because her help was needed, and she needed the psychological remuneration of making a difference in people’s lives.
Indeed, young social work students, wearing t-shirts saying, “Social workers change the world,” may be right—change in the world depends on patient and empathetic individuals who put the needs of others before their own.
As the American Catholic nun and social worker Mary Rose McGeady once said, “There is no greater joy nor greater reward than to make a fundamental difference in someone’s life.”
BY LIZ LAGNITON