Every morning, Estela Tabangcura applies her armor. Once stricken by coronavirus fear, the hospital custodian listens to her supervisor review the latest CDC protocols, noting which chemicals and equipment to use. She gears up—gloves, mask, eye shield. Then she and the rest of the first-shift housekeeping squad at University of Washington Medical Center set off to clean rooms filled with ill patients and contaminated surfaces. By sanitizing these areas, they form not only the first line of defense against the spread of Covid-19 but also one of the most selfless and humane responses to the crisis. “Patients need a clean room to live," Estela says.
While doctors and nurses regularly attract the spotlight for their efforts to curb Covid-19, hospitals’ maintenance and support staffers often facilitate these acts of medical heroism from the shadows. Cafeteria workers keep stomachs full. Linen services departments wash fabrics free of hazardous respiratory droplets. And custodians like Estela ensure that patients and physicians can count on their surroundings to be as disease-free as possible. “Essential,” says Jose Rodriguez, Estela’s supervisor at UW Medicine, of her work.
“Brave” would be another apt descriptor. When the local outbreak of Covid-19 began, Estela panicked, she recalls. As a hospital worker in her 70s, she felt she was at a higher risk of contracting the virus, and she wasn’t wrong; older adults have tested positive for the virus at greater rates than the rest of the population, and medical facility staff haven’t exactly been immune, either. In Estela’s case, lengthy periods of exposure loomed as well: On weekdays, she toils from 7:30am to 4pm at UW Medicine, where she has worked in some capacity for the past 25 years. On weekends, she commutes from her Columbia City home to Virginia Mason Medical Center, which has employed her for two decades.
Despite this mental and physical burden, Estela has found solace in the routine and education of morning briefings. She has learned about the disease and how it spreads, how to protect herself. At the beginning of each shift at UW Medicine, she receives a mask, and if it’s soiled at any point, she fetches another. Equipment shortages haven’t been an issue. “There’s no more need to panic for me,” Estela says. Though her sister, Elma Lazo, and other family members at home worry about her, they haven’t kept her house-bound: Since the start of the pandemic, Estela has worked every single day. She’s blunt about why. “I need to work because I need money,” she says. “And besides, the hospital needs my services at this time. I'm thinking of the patients because they need me to clean the room."
Estela and other housekeepers venture where few others would dare: into the quarantined spaces that hold or once held infected patients. Armed with disinfectants such as Virex II 256, they scrub and mop seemingly benign high-touch areas—sinks, doorknobs, and countertops—and every other imaginable surface, and they sanitize their cleaning instruments afterwards. Nurses often express their gratitude to Estela for this work, but nothing beats receiving praise from the patients themselves. Some have thanked Estela directly, stressing the importance of her role in their convalescence. “I can see a feeling of contentment in their eyes,” she says.
Those moments have helped Estela cope the most with this crisis, but she aches for when she’ll have some more time to finish the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Decades after emigrating from the Philippines, the former public school teacher has recently begun preparing her naturalization materials. She loves her homeland but believes America is the "best place to live." She views her work as one way she can contribute to the nation's recovery. "I don't want to stop yet," she says.