Filipino Nurses Follow Well-Worn Path to Jobs in Skokie

August 15, 2010

Text and photos by Ted Regencia

SKOKIE, Ill — When Cecilia Buenaflor came to Chicago after she left the Philippines in 1992, she was on her own. The newcomer, who had worked at a New York hospital, did not know anyone. As a single parent, she was struggling to balance motherhood and the demand to earn a living, and being 8,000 miles away from home didn’t help.

“Economically, I cannot survive in the Philippines just being a nurse,” Buenaflor said. “I have a family that I have to support.”

Working as a nurse at a senior living facility in the Philippines, Buenaflor was paid $10 an hour. With two young daughters at home and an extended family back in her homeland to support, it was a “tough” time for her, she said.

“But as long as you work hard, you will be rewarded,” Buenaflor said of her philosophy.

Now, she is the president and chief executive officer of Life Home Health Care in Skokie, an agency that provides nursing at-home services to patients. Her company ranks in the top 6 percent in home health agencies in the United States and employs between 50 and 60 nurses,  mostly Filipinos and many of them Skokie residents, she said.

Sitting in her corner office in the company’s building at Gross Point Road and Lincoln Avenue, Buenaflor reflects on her career path, noting her father pushed her into a nursing career.

After World War II, the aspiration to achieve the American dream became a driving force for the influx of nurses from the Philippines, a U.S. prize from the Spanish-American War in 1898 until gaining independence in 1946. The Exchange Visitor Program, and later the immigration reform of 1965, enabled Filipino nurses into the U.S. to fulfill their dreams. Their success persuaded relatives and friends to follow, starting a cycle that continues despite tighter economic times and immigration rules.

For many Filipino families facing economic hardship at home, a nursing degree is seen as a ticket to financial security, Buenaflor said. Out of the 21,500 foreign nurses who applied for accreditation in 2005, more than half came from the Philippines, a National Council of State Boards of Nursing study found.
That culture of compassion translates to a favorable level of care to the patients, said Marlyn Bermudez, another Philippine-trained nurse and a Skokie resident since 1992.

“That is really our passion that our forefathers taught us,” she said. “We learned it at home first, then we came to America.”

Bermudez, from the southern island of Mindanao, is imparting the same lessons to her nursing staff at Living Waters Home Health Care, which she co-owns with two partners.

Bermudez said when she started working in a Chicago hospital in 1991, many of her nursing colleagues were also Filipinos. Now, more than 80 percent of nurses and physical therapists at her agency are Filipino.

She observed that many Filipino parents encouraged their children to go into the medical field, noting, “They saw that there’s really a need for nurses abroad.”

But long before Buenaflor and Bermudez came to the U.S., the immigration path was already cleared for them by nurses like Lydia Schreiber, a native of Aklan in central Philippines. Schreiber came to the U.S. in 1964 as part of the Exchange Visitor Program and worked for more than three years at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Schreiber is one of the most senior visiting nurses at the Skokie-based Life Home Health Care. For 26 years, she worked at a Chicago community facility, now called Kindred Hospital.

As a hospital nurse, Schreiber’s work assignments ranged from the intensive care unit to the surgery room to the chemical dependency unit. She said she never refused any task, citing the Filipino culture of sacrifice and hard work for her success.

Schreiber acknowledged she was among those in the Philippines lured by the “glowing” image of America: “You are young, and you graduated from nursing, and you think, ‘Oh boy! I must go to America!’ ”

Her expectations were met especially because, “I found my husband. I got married,” she said with a giggle in recalling meeting her husband during her time in Minnesota.

That American dream became even more alluring, as the Philippine economy staggered during the late 1990s and early part of this century.

Encouraged by the demand and attractive jobs in the U.S., many Philippine universities expanded their nursing programs and enrollment skyrocketed. Even medical doctors moved into the field rather than spend additional years as hospital residents in order to practice.

But as the number of nursing graduates has ballooned, hiring has slowed down significantly. Due to the severe economic downturn, demand in the U.S. and elsewhere has dropped. A very long wait to immigrate to the U.S. is also building up because of retrogression.

The U.S. National Council of State Boards of Nursing reported a mid-year drop of more than 30 percent in Filipino nurses taking the National Council Licensure Examination. It said only 5,533 Filipino nurses took the test as of June, down from 8,272 in 2009.

Given those statistics and the economy, will the flow of Filipino nurses come to a halt? Or is this just the ebb before the next wave?

Buenaflor is optimistic about the prospects for those from her homeland. “People in the medical profession will always have a job,” she said.

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