Using His Bike, Doctor Volunteers To Deliver Home Care Kits To COVID-19 Patients
Dr. Alejandro Umali opted to be a part of the Bayanihan E-Konsulta program of the Office of the Vice President in a different way being a cycling and mobility advocate since 2016.
When Vice President Leni Robredo called for volunteers to take part in “Bayanihan E-Konsulta” program for people needing outpatient care in the National Capital Region, Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal or NCR Plus on April 5, many immediately responded.
But one medical doctor did not register to give free consultations to patients. Instead, he became one of those delivering the COVID-19 care kits to patients who opted to be treated at home as hospitals and quarantine facilities got congested due to surge in coronavirus cases.
Dr. Alejandro Umali, an emergency medicine resident at The Medical City (TMC), said when he learned about the E-Konsulta initiative, he quickly got in touch with Robredo’s daughter Tricia, also a medical doctor and his junior at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health as well as intern, to express his interest to be of help.
In an interview with Robredo’s radio show "BISErbisyong LENI" over dzXL on Sunday, May 2, Umali said he wanted to do “something different” aside from treating critical and severe COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
According to Umali, he thought about the limited funds of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the delivery charges to be incurred if the kits would be brought to the patients’ residences. So he volunteered to deliver the kits using his bicycle.
“I’m a bike commuter so I always bike to work,” Umali, 31, said.
Umali, who became both a medical doctor and a cycling and mobility advocate in 2016, explained they were taught about social determinants of health, which include “getting resources that you need to be able to address your health concerns” after consultation with a doctor and being given a prescription.
He said the E-Konsulta program addresses all of these as the kits “actually help those people with limited resources or no resources at all” to be able to get treatment.
“The problem now is logistical…How to get those resources to them. So I wanted to volunteer in that aspect,” Umali noted in English and Filipino.
Through area clustering, Umali bared that he could deliver four to six kits at a time in the cities of Pasig, Makati, Mandaluyong and San Juan.
Umali would do the rounds after his hospital duty.
The kits come with a digital thermometer, face masks, pulse oximeter, disinfectant, alcohol, waste disposal bag, medicine, and a monitoring sheet with detailed instructions.
Umali found it “cost-effective” to deliver the kits using his bicycle even if he could not do it as fast as motorcycle riders.
“So OK naman po, nagugulat siguro sila kasi naka-bisikleta ang nag-de-deliver (So far so good, I guess, they are surprised because the one who delivers is on a bicycle),” he said. “And I always tell them that I am a volunteer courier.”
Umali shared that most of the kits’ recipients were pleasantly surprised and appreciative to know that they would not be paying for anything.
Umali told The Philippine STAR that biking “is not a hobby” but “a way of living and advocacy.”
“I bike not just for sport or exercise but as a mode of transportation to advocate for active mobility, less car use and safer streets. I ditched my car in 2018 and I bike to TMC or anywhere,” he stressed.
In a blog post that came out on ABS-CBN News on May 29, 2020, Umali said his three-kilometer drive to and from work would take up to an hour before he did bike commuting.
“I got fed up and borrowed my brother’s folding bike. After a week of studying routes, watching videos on bike commuting, making sure I have all the equipment I need, and having the bike checked and dialed-in, I started to commute to work,” he recounted. “My 60-minute car drive turned to a 45-minute bike ride. After a few weeks, I was able to reduce my travel time to 20 minutes. I live farther now from where I work, more than double the distance. But I continue to ride my bike.”
Since the pandemic started, Umali also helped provide bicycles to fellow frontliners as means of transportation.
“Some of my colleagues simply cannot afford to stay in the lodging provided by the hospital; they have children to feed and their families to attend to. They hope a bicycle can ease their mobility concerns,” he said in his blog post.
Umali expressed belief that the government and the private sector should help each other to be able to get through this global health crisis.
He joined the E-Konsulta program because it caters to those who have little to no access to gadgets, technology and internet connection.
The program is offered for free to those needing outpatient services, whether COVID or non-COVID cases, in NCR Plus.
In a Facebook post on April 24, Robredo said she was amazed by the selflessness and generosity of doctors and other healthcare professionals during these trying times, and that “all of them have their hands full already but are still volunteering whatever extra time they have to talk to our patients over the phone.”
More than 2,000 medical and non-medical volunteers signed up to be part of the program when it was launched on April 7, or merely two days after the Vice President called for volunteers. Robredo’s daughter Tricia has also been doing full-time teleconsultations since the program started.
On April 26, Robredo sought for more volunteers for the program as consultations reached 1,500 per day.
She said apart from the volunteers, 87 staff of the OVP are also involved in the day-to-day operations of the e-consultation initiative.
“We need more volunteer doctors — GPs (general physicians) and consultants. We need all specializations, particularly psychiatrists, surgeons, neurologists, allergologists, gastroenterologists, endocrinologists, cardiologists. We also need psychologists,” Robredo posted on her social media pages.
“We are already overwhelmed by the generosity and selflessness of our volunteer doctors but we need more so we can serve more. Since all consultations are through telephone, you can be anywhere in the country,” she said.
The OVP is also in need of non-medical volunteers who will assist in the following areas: chat support, triaging and tagging (with full-time doctors), monitoring of COVID-19 patients via calls, call bridging, and technical support.
As of Wednesday, April 28, 26,567 requests have been received by the E-Konsulta volunteers. Of this number, 7,342 requests were completed, meaning they were processed through chat or teleconsultations, as well as other services.
“Even us in our hospital, we have already done home care packages, home care consultation, teleconsultation. But as a private institution, this is expensive,” Umali pointed out.
Umali said the government should strive to provide better health care services as some people cannot even afford to schedule a check-up with a doctor and the necessary treatment.
“I think that’s the most important thing. Healthcare access. And the OVP has been augmenting the gaps in that healthcare access part, especially contacting doctors,” he added. “And at the same time, it helps empower patients to be comfortable about taking care of themselves and their loved ones at home.”
For Umali, the most important thing that everyone should understand is that “health is about the social and economic structures around us.”
“So pwede kasing sabihin na i-blame natin ang mga tao for not taking care of themselves, pwede nating sabihin na nagpabaya sila, pero that’s not entirely true. (So we blame people for not taking care of themselves, we can say that they are negligent, but that’s not entirely true),” he emphasized.
Umali said there are so many factors affecting people’s lifestyles and health.
Is he getting tired of treating and helping people especially since the pandemic has become protracted? Umali said as long as he is physically and spiritually able, he will do his obligation as a doctor.
“Napapagod din po (I also get tired). I have always told people that we are not heroes, we are humans too. And a lot of my colleagues are already at the peak of being tired, pero siyempre may sinumpaang tungkulin (but of course, we have our sworn duties),” he underscored.
He disclosed that he has been treating coronavirus patients since December 2019.
Being an emergency doctor, Umali is one of those who check on critical and severe COVID-19 patients first together with other physicians, nurses and other staff.
He said every time he sees patients recover from COVID-19, he feels “overjoyed” as this kind of situation “fuels” them to keep going on their work.
“Kasi siyempre pandemya, hindi lagi nananalo, hindi lagi nakaka-survive (Because, of course, it’s a pandemic, we do not always win, not everyone gets to survive). [But] each story that leads to a good outcome, to patients [who get discharged], fuels us to keep going,” he said.