Iza Calzado, Philippines' Patient 878, Opens Up About Her Experience Battling COVID-19
An actress, television personality, Gen.T honouree, and a staunch body positivity and self-love advocate, Iza Calzado is a true example of an empowered woman. Through She Talks Asia, an organisation she co-founded, she has helped change the way Asian women perceive themselves, specifically in the self-esteem department. As she is a dynamic and spirited personality, one would be hard-pressed to picture Calzado—who is well-known for playing a queen with special powers in a popular fantasy series—as anything but full of life. But no one is exempt from a pandemic, not even the young and the healthy.
On 12 March, Calzado began to develop flu-like symptoms. What started as a general feeling of being unwell evolved into a dry throat and cough. Concerned, she set an appointment with her doctor, who sent her home with a prescription and instructions to be mindful of any symptomatic progressions. When she developed a fever the following day, Calzado braced herself for the worst. “I did not know if I could have been exposed to someone who had COVID-19, but in the back of my head, I knew that were was a strong possibility that I might have it. The fear was there, but so was denial; I kept trying to downplay what was happening,” she shares.
Barely a week after she contracted the fever, she was hospitalised on 20 March for pneumonia. At this point, it was imperative that she get tested for COVID-19. Her results came back a week later, cementing her as patient 878. Furthermore, her lungs were infected by a bacteria called Acinetobacter baumannii, which has a high incidence in immunocompromised individuals, contributed to the worsening of her condition. She had trouble both eating and sleeping, and often felt stressed and anxious.
“When you’re in the hospital, you take things one day at a time,” she says. “There will be good days and there will be bad days—it is a roller coaster ride. I was fortunate to be in a good hospital with amazing doctors and nurses taking care of me. I was not in complete isolation because my test results did not come in until halfway through my confinement, which was why my husband [Ben Wintle] was able to stay with me. I was too weak in mind, body, and spirit to do things on my own; I would have really struggled if he wasn’t there.”
Her husband, family, and friends were the backbone of her support system; their love and prayers helped her through her darkest days. “When I was in the hospital, I was not completely ‘there.’ I had my phone with me, but it was just too much for me to have to respond to people—I had so little energy at the time. My loved ones were constantly reaching out, but there was also an outpouring of support from strangers. There are still so many messages that I am yet to respond to, and I am trying my best to get to as many as I can, but I would like to take this opportunity to tell everyone who has been so kind that I am so grateful.”
Her attending nurses, too, did their best to ease her fears, with one even saying, “Ikaw si Sang’gre Amihan, kaya lalaban ka [“You are Sang’gre Amihan, which is why you must fight this”],” in reference to the much loved character she portrayed in the fantasy series Encantadia. And so she, too, did her best to be there for them, asking them about their own experiences given their roles as frontliners in the battle against COVID-19. “There was this fellow who was trying to put an IV line, but my veins just weren’t cooperating that day. He works in the ER, and he shared that he doesn’t even go home anymore because that would run the risk of possibly bringing anything from the hospital to his family,” she recalls. But there was good news on the horizon. Less than a week after she tested positive, she got retested and the results had come back negative and she was finally free to go home.
The first few weeks back were a struggle. Her energy levels were, of course, not up to speed, and there were times when she would feel so overwhelmed by both physical and emotional stress that she would have to stop whatever it was she was doing to regain her strength. She has started working out again, but is sticking to bodyweight exercises and dance training for now. “The healing journey—whether physical, mental, or emotional—is a continuous process,” she shares. “I am back at a level wherein I can do a 90-minute Zumba session, but I have grown more respectful of my body’s limits. I make sure to remind myself that even if I can do it, I should not push myself to go as hard as I used to because I am still recovering.” She has also been using the time to develop a regular sleeping pattern and manage her stress levels, which had been difficult before when she was scheduled for tapings on the daily.
With regard to her emotional well-being, it is a different story. Calzado has needed time and space to fully come to terms with her experience on her own, as well as with trained professionals who help her manage her thought process. “Being aware of needing help and doing something about it can be very powerful. I found myself dealing with survivor’s guilt—I still do, sometimes—but I’ve slowly been getting better. Processing these feelings has also allowed me to feel grateful for this second shot at life.”
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Outside of medical and contact tracing purposes, Calzado was told that she had every right not to disclose her condition—that this was her data and she could keep things private if she so wanted. But people were starting to gossip, and rumours had begun to circulate online. “You have no control of what others will say about you,” says the actress. “Even if they are your friends, even if you trust them, people can and will talk. And for the information to trickle down, all it takes is one person.” She also felt that it would be unfair for her to keep silent, and that it was her social and moral responsibility—especially to those she had come in contact with—to go public about her condition. “Testing positive for COVID-19 isn’t something you should be ashamed of. The more transparent we are, the easier it is to contact trace and save lives. Some people told me that COVID-19 felt even more real to them after I posted about my experience. It helped them understand that it could happen to anybody—that you can be young and healthy, but these qualities don’t make you invincible. But I also understand why others prefer to keep things private because the stigma is there.”
Now that she is on the mend, Calzado hopes to use her platform to make positive contributions to those in need of help. She is one of the survivors in line to donate blood to the plasma treatment programme, but her test results are, at the time of this writing, insufficient. “I hope to become eligible very soon as this is one way of paying it forward,” she shares. “The two times I tried, my haemoglobin was still low; I’ve been working on getting my iron levels up through proper nutrition and supplements. I’m also trying to find ways to help the community in a mental health-centred capacity. We have to be reminded that kindness is also contagious. We have to come out of it kinder to ourselves, to others, and Mother Nature.”
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She adds, “This is the first time that I’ve really had to face my mortality. It is a very humbling and enlightening experience. It makes you recognise the limitations of the human body; you realise that you are not exactly a super woman even though you are trying to be one. I am now geared towards living a more purpose-driven life. Even if that was something I thought I was already set on, my experience made me even more determined to live out God’s purpose for me and to make every breath count. I’m glad it wasn’t my time yet.”
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- Photography Patrick Diokno / The Philippine Star