By Mimi Williams, Communications
The six months since he lost his friend, co-worker, and housemate Joe Corral, who passed away on December 28, 2021, have been very difficult for Ephraim Tiangha, who friends and family call "JV."
“He was my friend. He was my brother. He was everything,” Tiangha says.
Joe Marie (Jing) Parrenas Corral, a 61-year old Health Care Aide (HCA), was the first Alberta healthcare worker known to have died of COVID-19. He worked at Bethany Riverview in Calgary, a long-term care centre specializing in care for people with complex dementia. JV still works there.
At the time of Joe’s passing, Bethany Riverview had been on outbreak status for over a month, affecting four levels of the facility. There were 20 active employee cases and 20 active resident cases at the site, and two residents had died. When Joe died, a total of 10 employees and 11 residents had recovered from COVID-19.
They need us to work. Who’s going to take care of them? I have a choice not to work but the residents have no choice. They need someone to take care of them.
Both Joe and JV worked in the “COVID Hero” program introduced by their employer. Their jobs are challenging in the best of circumstances. These were not, of course, the best of circumstances.
JV, who worked four shifts as a COVID Hero, describes the difficulties working through the outbreak. “We were so tired. It was exhausting. It was hard. We were very careful to go slow with gowning and PPE and disposing it because if you go fast, you’ll forget the system,” he recalls.
“They have behaviour issues they have COVID, they are restless, they are agitated,” he says of the residents. “It’s hard. It’s hard normally because they don’t trust you.... now we are wearing PPE, and they can’t see our face, so it’s worse. There’s restlessness, there’s aggression.”
By the time JV took a leave of absence in mid-December because his wife is immunocompromised, and he was concerned about bringing the virus home, Joe had stepped up to be a COVID Hero. The two friends talked about how exhausting the work was and JV encouraged Joe to request time off if he needed to rest.
“These residents have no choice,” Joe had responded. “Where’s their choice? They need us to work. Who’s going to take care of them? I have a choice not to work but the residents have no choice. They need someone to take care of them.”
He was my friend. He was my brother. He was everything.
Joe continued to care for the residents until he started exhibiting symptoms about a week and a half later. His COVID-19 test came back positive. JV spent several days bringing Joe food and checking on him regularly. Around December 23, Joe started to feel a bit better and was well enough to clean his room and do some laundry. But he took a turn for the worse on December 26, when he exhibited a fever and had difficulty breathing. JV tried to get Joe to go to the hospital, but Joe pointed out that they had co-workers who had managed their symptoms without going to emergency. He was adamant he could, too, and JV respected his friend’s wishes.
From the Philippines to Alberta’s Frontlines, New Canadians like Corral Have Risked A Lot
Known for its Spanish colonial churches and old houses, Iloilo City is on Panay Island in the Philippines. It is 11,251 kilometres away from Calgary, Alberta, where JV first met Joe Corral in 2014.
They were both working as HCAs through an agency and were assisting the same client on different shifts. One day JV decided to leave a note for his co-worker, Joe.
“I had no idea he was Filipino,” says JV. “His name was ‘Joe’; I figured he was a white guy.”
When the two met a couple of days later, they were thrilled to discover they were from the same province and city in the Philippines. While this was the first time JV met Joe face-to-face, he learned that his family back home knew him. Despite a twenty-year age difference, they became instant friends.
A year later, JV let Joe know that he had a downstairs room to rent, and Joe moved right in. They were pretty much inseparable after that. They worked together, socialized together, washed their cars together. Joe was JV’s youngest child’s godfather.
I was blown away with how tight knit this community is and how they stepped up to support Joe’s family and friends through their tragic loss. The entire health care system relies disproportionately on our brothers and sisters from the Philippines and news of Joe’s death travelled quickly among them.
JV recounts the day he found Joe unresponsive, every detail committed to memory. He was in shock but knew he had to contact Joe’s children and family. With Joe’s phone locked behind a password, JV used facebook to convey the sad news.
Angela Regnier is the Membership Services Officer for AUPE members at Bethany Riverview. She got a phone call from one of Joe’s co-workers advising her of his passing, which she confirmed with the Chapter Executive.
“It was awful to hear,” she says. “And it was awful to hear how afraid everyone else in the workplace was hearing the news.” She also recalls being “angry and disheartened” because it took the employer several days to even acknowledge Joe’s death.
Regnier says Joe was quite well known in Calgary’s Filipino community, which helped her get in touch with his children. AUPE Communications assisted with a media release and JV stepped up to act as spokesperson for the family and field media requests along with AUPE Vice President Bobby-Joe Borodey.
“I was blown away with how tight knit this community is and how they stepped up to support Joe’s family and friends through their tragic loss,” Borodey says. “The entire health care system relies disproportionately on our brothers and sisters from the Philippines and news of Joe’s death travelled quickly among them.”
She’s not wrong. Although Filipinos make up just 1.2 per cent of our country’s workforce, about 5 per cent of all healthcare workers in Canada are Filipino, according to one study. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reports that a third of internationally-trained nurses in the country are from the Philippines.
The Broadbent Institute notes how structural adjustment programs (SAPs) place developing economies like the Philippines in a dependent relationship with more affluent countries like Canada. Continued economic stagnation, in fact, makes labour migration the only option for many families in the Philippines.
“Although workers from the Philippines have a very strong presence in health care,” notes Borodey, “it would be a mistake to stereotype Filipino migrant workers as caregivers.” For instance, about seventy percent of workers in the meatpacking industry, which was also hit hard by COVID-19, are from the Philippines.
“Losing a member due to illness or injury contracted at work is always a tragedy,” says Borodey. “Losing a member who left his home country to help care for Canadians, who knew the danger he was placing himself in and who faced that danger because the residents needed him makes it all the more heartbreaking.”
JV continues to go to work and often finds himself sensing Joe’s presence. “It’s like I’ll be working on our unit and he taps me on the shoulder from time to time to say, ‘Don’t forget about me.’,” he says.
There’s a little corner off the activity room at Bethany Riverview that has a photo of Joe and messages of condolences. JV goes there sometimes for comfort when he’s missing his friend. JV brings fresh flowers for Joe from time to time.
“I miss my friend,” says JV, his voice heavy with grief. “My family was his family. My friends were his friends. My children miss their Tito.
“I just don’t want people to forget about him. He was a good person. He was a hero.”