“My heart has always been in the Philippines.”
Tamara Sibala grew up in the small beach town of Dumaguete in the Philippines, where she spent half her time playing in the ocean’s waters and the other half in her father’s clinic. It was this early exposure to both her motherland and the medical field during her childhood that would shape and inspire her life’s journey, even after she and her family immigrated to Los Angeles when she was 16 years old.
As a teenager from the Philippines, the cultural differences between the two countries were immediate to her from the start. She went from knowing all her neighbors on a first-name basis to not knowing anyone at all. The lush jungles and serene beaches she used to know like the back of her hand were traded for suburban backyards and busy freeways.
While there were certainly adjustments to make, life in America also had some positive differences, one being that schools and libraries were everywhere. However, it was the disparity between what was available to patients in America compared to what was available to patients in the Philippines that would make an impression on Tamara.
Upon graduating from nursing school, Tamara started work at Cedars Sinai before moving to the Children’s Hospital as a pediatric nurse. In most hospitals and clinics across the United States, children have access to books of all kinds, medical supplies are disposable, and everyone who wants to see their doctor gets to see their doctor. In contrast, patients from rural cities in the Philippines are at the mercy of the doctor’s schedule. To see a doctor, they must arrive early in the morning to get a number and wait all day with no guarantee that they will be seen. Moreover, anything that touches the patient — including but not limited to IV infusions, IV tubing, needles and even gloves — is paid for out-of-pocket by the patient. Neither proper bedding nor water is provided, which means patients must bring them from home.
Tamara recalled when this lack of medical infrastructure in Dumaguete nearly cost her her life. When she was a child, she had caught Dengue fever, a common yet treatable blood disease in tropical places. She was in desperate need of blood transfusions to make a full recovery, but because of the lack of blood banks in her hometown, her family had to organize a blood drive on their own. Friends and family members pitched in what they could, and ultimately, she survived. Not everyone is always so lucky. A common sight Tamara sees on social media these days is people in the Philippines asking for blood donations, relying on the generosity of other people. Otherwise, they simply buy blood with what they can afford.
Seeing and experiencing these differences galvanized Tamara to use her medical profession to make a difference. Through the Children’s Hospital, she got in touch with the Red Cross chapter closest to her hometown. With their help, she started running medical missions to educate locals on the risks of Dengue and raise awareness around blood donations. Recently, she also partnered up with city officials, priests and teachers to organize a 5K fun run called Dugo Ko, Gasa Ko (“My Blood, My Gift”). Four hundred people showed up to run the race with her, and even more showed up to donate blood.
For the time being, Tamara continues to travel back and forth between Los Angeles and Dumaguete. Next year, Tamara plans to move back to Dumaguete with her husband and newborn son, where she aims to continue offering her knowledge and expertise as a medical resource and support underserved communities in the Southern Philippines.