The Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco assembled a powerhouse panel of Filipino and Filipino American women health leaders in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, for an online roundtable discussion in celebration of National Women’s Month in the Philippines and Women’s History Month in America.

Moderated by Philippine Tourism Attaché in San Francisco Soleil Tropicales, the Consulate’s “Women in Health: Leading Our Communities Out of the Pandemic and On the Road to Equity” online event shone a spotlight on the role of Filipina and Filipina American health leaders in Northern California and Washington State in turning the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in creating a more equitable community in terms of access to healthcare.

Philippine Consul General Neil Ferrer opened the online event by recognizing “the multifaceted contributions of Filipino and Filipino American women in the healthcare and medical sectors,” adding that through their stories and experiences that we hope to inspire other women, and get men to rally behind the need to create an environment for women to rise and to flourish.”

Consul General Ferrer also paid tribute to the Filipino and Filipino American COVID-19 medical front liners and first responders, saying that “their countless sacrifices and selfless dedication in serving and healing the sick have made it possible for us to gradually return to normalcy.”

For embodying the timeless Filipino spirit of bayanihanmaraming salamat sa inyong lahat,” the Philippine Consul General said.

The four trailblazing Filipina American health leaders shared stories of their journeys in the U.S., their motivations and experiences as they continued to build their careers in the American healthcare sector, and their struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Karen Relucio, Deputy Director and Public Health Officer at the Health and Human Services Agency of Napa County in the San Francisco Bay Area, said: “We had to open an emergency operations center, with lots of people involved, helping with guidance, working with our healthcare partners, our schools, and our community-based organizations. We’re all trying to work together as a community to protect people from the impacts of COVID-19. It has been a lot of work.”

For her achievements in leading the Napa County’s COVID-19 response, California State Senator Bill Dodd named Dr. Relucio as “Woman of the Year” in 2021.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, the first Filipina President of the California Nurses Association, shared: “Because of the strong work of our nurses and our union, we were able to push forward and obtain the necessary personal protective equipment and to push [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] on a federal level to issue an emergency, temporary standard that will be protecting not just the nurses but also all healthcare workers and professionals as well.”

Triunfo-Cortez’s current portfolio as a health and labor leader signifies the major role that Filipino and Filipino American nurses play in California, where one out of five registered nurses are trained in the Philippines.

Other Filipina American health leaders in the panel talked about their advocacies on ensuring greater access to healthcare for everyone. Teresita Batayola is President and CEO of the International Community Health Services, Washington State’s largest non-profit health center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), immigrants and refugees.

U.S. President Joe Biden recently appointed Batayola as Member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on AAPIs. Having been appointed to the Commission is very important to me, and it speaks a lot to the values and activities that I’ve done in this country, not just in my career and personal life. In an era where there is a predominance of anti-Asian hate, where immigrants and refugees are looked down upon… it is just amazing that we have to do too much to push back, to assert ourselves,” Batayola said.

Stanford University Clinical Professor of Medicine Dr. Julieta Gabiola formed the non-profit group ABC’s for Global Health, to provide medical as well as preventive health care services to the underprivileged in the Philippines.

On Filipino women in the healthcare field, Dr. Gabiola said: “[Women] are achieving some mileage in terms of representation for women. Actually, it humanizes the experience of medicine because of the presence of women. Having said that, I think we still are falling behind in terms of opportunities. Advancement of women in medicine is so hard because of the responsibilities in the household.”

Dr. Gabiola added: “In terms of research, women are underrepresented. For us, Filipino women, we are even much more underrepresented because when they do research among Asians [in the U.S.], everything is aggregated. We have to look at how Filipino women are doing in terms of representation in research, advancement and leadership.”

On what sets Filipino and Filipino American women apart from their colleagues in the healthcare sector, Triunfo-Cortez said: “We have an anti-colonial fighting spirit, and that we are resilient and hardworking. The fact that we understand how it is to be otherized by people, we understand that we need to be brave and work in a very hostile environment. Growing up here, going to school here, being educated and being trained here, I learned to prove myself time and time again because I need to make it known that I am worthy to be here, to be part of the community and to be part of the nursing profession.”

The Filipina American health leaders offered some words of wisdom to women, especially Filipino women and girls, who aspire for a career in the healthcare sector.

“For our youth, our Filipinas, shoot for the moon. And I think that humility and being open to other perspectives is really important in achieving leadership. I’ll just simply say ‘You got this!’ or ‘You can do this!’ and fight for what you believe in,” Dr. Relucio said.

“You cannot serve other people if you are still trying to serve yourself, right? I also like to make people feel that they should always be self-compassionate. It is okay to make a mistake, it is okay to fail, but rise up again,” Dr. Gabiola shared.

“In this country, where racism has reared its ugly head again, it is so important for us to stand up, show up and speak out. And I say that to the Filipina girls and Filipino boys who aspire to be in healthcare, Batayola said.

The “Women in Health” online roundtable discussion may be viewed in its entirety on the video tab of the Consulate’s official Facebook page: