Former HFI scholar Sheryl Masalon Balco shares her story as a midwife in a rural community

“Kung mangangarap ka, isama mo na ang lahat”

This is what Sheryl Masalon Balco, a 27-year-old midwife hailed from Landan, Polomolok, South Cotabato, said when she was asked about the reason behind her personal dream, which is to make basic health care services free and accessible for everyone. A proud member of the Blaan tribe, Sheryl was one of Health Futures Foundation, Inc.’s (HFI) beneficiaries under its scholarship program with OPTEAM* from 2010-2015. Through the said program, Sheryl was able to finish her degree in Midwifery from the UP Manila School of Health Sciences (UPM-SHS) Koronadal in South Cotabato in 2014. She first worked as a midwife in a private lying-in clinic based in Brgy, Poblacion, Polomolok, South Cotabato, and eventually as a Rural Health Midwife through the Department of Health’s (DOH) Human Resource for Health Network (HRH) program in 2015. Sheryl also hopes to follow the path of her co-scholars and pursue Nursing studies soon.

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Sheryl in her traditional Blaan clothing

Like most people in Landan, Sheryl grew up in a tight-knit community where everyone was treated as part of the family. She said, most people in their barangay are also Blaan, and when you’re part of this community, you will always have each other’s back. As a daughter of both farmers, Sheryl lives a simple life who wants nothing but to serve her community in whatever means. According to her, this aspiration was furthered by her experience in doing community service during her time at UPM-SHS.

Now a mother of two, Sheryl continues to give back to her community as a Rural Health Midwife in Polomolok despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from providing care to pregnant women, she also participates in the different health programs and projects of the Polomolok Rural Health Unit (RHU). Currently, Sheryl is assisting in the COVID-19 vaccination and information dissemination program while performing routine tasks in the health center. Prior to the pandemic, Sheryl was often on-ground, helping in the immunization campaigns, teaching community members on various health topics, and sometimes, assisting the private sector in their health projects in the community.

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During the Mono Oral Polio Vaccine (mOPV) drive in Purok 1-A,2, and 10, Landan, Pomolok, South Cotabato in 2019

As a health professional, Sheryl is used to the tough demands of her work. She reminisced about the times where she and Nurse Lady Faith, who is a fellow HFI-OPTEAM scholar, have to manage the Barangay Health Station (BHS) in the daytime and the birthing home at night. She also cited a story on how they facilitated consecutive births in a single day. While this seems taxing, for Sheryl, these are opportunities to help more people in their community- her family. (READ: Blaan Scholar Lady Faith Juli Pursues Medicine in U.P.)

However, the challenge escalates when the COVID-19 pandemic hits the country. Programs in the community, particularly house-to-house activities, are suspended due to the lockdown. More than that, they have to work together and immediately devise a plan on how to ensure the community’s safety from the virus.

During the pandemic, Sheryl continues to refer their pregnant and non-COVID patients to nearby public hospitals. However, during the COVID-19 surge, some of these hospitals had also reached their full capacity. In this situation, patients and their families were asked to get the proper care they need from private facilities instead.

Financial constraints play a significant role in the poor health-seeking behavior of residents from low-income and marginalized communities, that’s why it is indeed difficult, not to mention heartbreaking, to ask these people to spend for health care and treatment.

Even those whom they were able to refer to public health facilities were also worried about the out-of-pocket expenses that come with hospitalization. Many community members still have no health insurance or are not enrolled in PhilHealth at the very least. In reality, the gaps in primary health care did not only start during the pandemic. Even before COVID-19 arrives in the country, there are already issues in the existing health care facilities and a shortage of medical supplies which hinders them from adequately supporting the community. Sheryl cited a health center in the municipality which has neither water supply nor electricity. Traveling from and to Polomolok has always been a challenge as well due to limited transportation, causing delays in emergency response. There are also instances where health professionals can only give prescriptions to the patients due to the lack of supply of medicines in the RHU. These situations fuel Sheryl to take her role as a health professional seriously. This is the reason why she also actively partakes in programs promoting the implementation of Universal Health Care (UHC).

In the era of social media where fake news proliferates, health education is not a walk in the park. Even at this point, Sheryl still struggles to encourage people from her community, especially the elderly, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But for her, this is something that we cannot just force on them. Rather,  we have to tirelessly persuade and educate the people until they realize the significance of this campaign. Of course, Sheryl also wishes for enough vaccine supplies in the community once these people are also ready to get vaccinated.

Thankfully, with the ease in quarantine protocols, Sheryl was able to return to the communities, doing visits in the puroks of Landan to continue the immunization campaigns and health teaching sessions. Just recently, their team did immunization activities for measles and had also become busy with their teenage pregnancy campaign and family planning program. Per Sheryl’s narrative, everything is gradually going back to normal. Hopefully, the situation in Polomolok continues to improve in the coming months.

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Sheryl administering anti-flu and anti-pneumonia shots to the elderlies of Puroks 4 and 10 of Landan, Pomolok, South Cotabato. Photos taken in 2020
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Children in Puroks 4 and 10 of Landan, Pomolok, South Cotabato receiving their Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Photos taken in 2020
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During the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) drive in Puroks 1-A, 5, 8, and 10, Landan, Polomolok, South Cotabato conducted last year
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Sheryl doing prenatal screening in Puroks 4,12, and 14 of Landan,Polomolok, South Cotabato. Photos taken in 2020

 

“Kung health worker ka, hindi lang sarili mo ang iniisip [mo], kung pwede papasanin mo ang lahat”

Sheryl believes that life is too short to be selfish. For her, we must help as much as we can, especially the elderly and the disadvantaged. Sheryl’s selflessness sometimes transcends her role as a health care professional, especially if it’s her Blaan brothers and sisters at stake. She said that she, raised in Blaan values, is willing to do whatever it takes to help resolve their problems. That’s why when asked if she has a message to the Blaan youth who aspires to follow her steps as a health worker in a community, her advice is simple yet so powerful: Study well, be inspired, and always choose to serve the people.

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Prenatal screening inside the Landan Health Center in Polomolok, South Cotabato
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Immunization activities facilitated at Landan Health Center in Polomolok, South Cotabato

 

Indeed, Sheryl’s identity as Blaan has a significant influence on her mindset as a health professional—this made her passionate about helping people, despite the tough demands and challenging circumstances. Being Blaan makes her a good health professional while becoming a health professional humbles her to revisit her roots. In these times where we are constantly challenged by crises, let us find inspiration from Sheryl and our Blaan brothers and sisters—let’s always choose to have each other’s backs.

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#HFIFeature #HFIOPTEAMScholar #Midwife #BlaanScholar #Blaan #IndigenousPeoples #Landan #Polomolok #SouthCotabato #PrimaryHealthCare #UniversalHealthCare #BeatCOVID #CommunitiesofWellness #TransformCommunities #HFI #HealthFutures #ALAGAKA

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*OPTEAM is HFI’s corporate partner based in Finland.

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Interested to learn more about the Blaan culture and heritage? Read this post from our page: https://www.healthfuturesfoundation.com/preserving-the-blaan-heritage

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 Health Futures Foundations, Inc.
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