Catherine Zamora has been a migrant worker in Taiwan since 2012. Most recently, Catherine worked for a semiconductor company in Taoyuan County, Taiwan, though since October 2016, she has been sheltered at the Hope Workers’ Center. Catherine has told the story of her experience as a migrant worker for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.”
By Catherine Zamora
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche
My dad, brothers, and I called her chair the tumba tumba, “rocking chair” in Tagalog. And for the last days of my mom’s life, she spent all hours in her tumba tumba.
I was in my third year of high school when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since my birth, she had always been the constant presence in my family, but after the diagnosis, my mom’s cancer spread quickly and painfully. It left a strong woman exhausted, in constant pain, and progressively unable to lift herself up from her tumba tumba.
On what became my mom’s last day of life, we were eating soup together, a bowl of Filipino tinola. She had taught me to prepare the dish when I was 15 and it was what I now served her during her sickness. I was helping her to eat when she stopped me, deadly serious: “You have to take care of your brothers. Don’t give them to anyone.”
I promised that I would take care of my five brothers and my dad—I knew how much she loved him too—and we finished lunch.
After she had finished a bowl of tinola with rice, my mom asked me to go buy a cup of halo halo, an iced treat common in the Philippines. We finished the cup of halo halo together and my mom asked to rest her head on my shoulder. She nodded off to sleep and stopped breathing an hour later. I called her brothers and sisters from the other room and we cried together, but I knew that it was time for my mom to go to Heaven.
Vivian Zamora died on March 13, 2003, with her head on my shoulder.
The second-most important diagnosis to my life was my own. “Kidney failure. Chronic kidney failure.”
I was born on February 12, 1989, to Arturo and Vivian Zamora. As their first child, I remember being the sole focus of my mom’s attention when I was still very little. We would walk hand in hand everywhere—to the market, the church, and then home where she would prepare dinner before my dad returned from work.
My dad worked as a carpenter, at that time, and earned enough to support the three of us.
When I was two, I became the older sister to Ryan, who was followed two years later by Arvin, and then Arturo, Jr., when I was six years old. I became a de facto mother in our family as my mom was suddenly busy chasing four energetic boys. As my siblings each became of school age, I would walk with my brothers to our hometown’s elementary school—hand in hand until we met their teachers at the classroom doors, else I risked their dashes for freedom. Even as kinder, my brothers resented going to school and would escape whenever they could. Sometimes when I would wait for them outside of their classrooms after school, I would learn that they had run home during the day while a teacher’s back had been turned.
My father left our home when I was in the second grade. He and my mother had been arguing and one day he disappeared, having moved in with a new girlfriend in Calocan, his hometown. His absence created additional stress upon my remaining family members, particularly my mom, and I began to take an even greater matriarchic role. It was around this time my mom taught me to cook: I learned to choose the right ingredients from the market and in the proper amounts so that I could make tinola, a very delicious chicken soup. I cook often today, many different dishes, but I still think my first pot of tinola was the best dish I have ever cooked.
Father returned to our home and made amends with my mother when I was in the fifth grade, three years after he had left. I don’t know why he returned and I wasn’t privy to the peacemaking between him and my mom, but I was glad to have him back; I know how much my mom loved him.
My mother gave birth to two more sons: Vincent and Genesis, my baby brothers.
My fifteenth year of life marked the beginning of great change in my family’s robustness. As a third-year high school student, I remember thinking I was in the midst of the best year of my life. I had all kinds of friends and we would cut classes together to go swimming, singing karaoke, hiking and climbing in the mountains, or just to walk the malls. I was in a serious car accident—knocked over and sent to the hospital by a speeding offroad taxi, a Jeepney—but I avoided serious injury and continued to adventure with friends.
But while I was enjoying a fun year of adolescence, my mother was getting sicker.
After my mother died, we really struggled to make ends meet. She had been treated for only six months, but the medical bills had wiped us out. My father had lost his job and was suffering from the onset of diabetes, which often left him bedridden. Though we had never been a wealthy family, this marked a descent into poverty for us. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to continue for my final year of high school because of the cost of classes and because I would need to earn money to support my brothers.
Just as I prepared to drop out near the end of my third year of high school, I read an advertisement for a local scholarship, offered by the Catholic diocese; if awarded, it would pay my class expenses and provide me a small stipend. I was awarded the scholarship and it allowed me to continue attending the high school in my hometown, Canosa Academy in Bucal, Calamba Laguna. The grant’s lone condition was that I attend catechism every Saturday, and in exchange my catechists gave me ₱350 (Philippine Pesos) a week! This was my family’s only consistent income at the time, so I would use it to buy the family’s weekly rice. Sometimes, classmates would also loan me money or give me food. We lived in an area, by the train tracks of Bucal, where most of our neighbors were nearly as poor as we were, so we would help each other and try to survive.
In the years between my mother’s death and my own diagnosis, a lot happened to my family.
First, I had moved to Taiwan to work in a factory. After working briefly in an electronics factory in Calamba Laguna, near the high school from which I had graduated, I was granted a passport and approved by a brokers’ agency to work overseas. I hadn’t intended to work abroad. At the factory in the Philippines, I had earned ₱20,000 (NT$12,200) per month, which wasn’t much but allowed my family to meagerly survive. At this point, my father’s diabetes had become severe and he was left unable to work, sometimes even unable to leave the house; by 20, I was the family’s only breadwinner.
I had heard about the amounts that some of my friends earned in foreign factories and I became tempted by what those earnings could mean for my family. This optimism for the future of my family overcame my sadness at the thought of leaving home and the realism of a broker’s fee. The brokers’ agency charged me ₱110,000 (NT$67,104) up front and a service charge of ₱30,000 (NT$18,301) per month during my first three-year contract. I borrowed nearly all of the money from a private loan agency so that my broker would help me find work in Taiwan.
The second major blow to the morale of my family was the imprisonment of my father. I had already worked for two years in Taiwan when my siblings told me our dad had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for selling drugs. At the time, rumors swirled: my father and his brother-in-law had long feuded publicly and had nearly come to violent confrontation before. There were some indications that my uncle had framed my father for the crime, but my father went to jail all the same. My father, severely diabetic, imprisoned!
These heavy realities, in quick and painful succession, made me reconsider whether I would return home after working in Taiwan. During my first three years there, I had planned to return home as soon as I could; I missed friends and family, and I was concerned for my father’s declining health. But after he was imprisoned, I knew the NT$30,000 per month I had earned in Taiwan would be more important than ever for me to continue supporting my family. Two brothers were nearing high-school graduation and I needed to help them go to college.
So, in September 2015, I moved to Taiwan to begin a second contract of work. In October 2016, I was diagnosed with kidney failure.
Chang Gung Hospital, in Zhongli, Taiwan, admitted me at 1 a.m. on Friday, October 17, 2016.
I had worked throughout the week, unconcerned about my period, but in the late hours Friday I became perplexed by the intensity of my menstruation. When my friends realized how much blood I was discharging, they told me I must go to the hospital.
Once in the emergency room, the inspecting doctor surmised I was suffering from anemia, a red-cell deficiency in my blood, and he began replenishing my body’s blood count; it took five bags of blood to replenish what I had already lost. The medical staff gave me medicine to staunch my bleeding and extracted vials of my blood for tests. They told me that the doctor’s next workday would be in three days, but I couldn’t see him before Monday morning. My friends relented their hovering support and returned to our factory dorms without me.
The three days I spent waiting in the hospital for more tests and a doctor’s diagnosis was the longest weekend of my life. I was already angry at myself for making my friends stay up so late at the hospital with me on a Friday night, but now I knew that I would miss at least part of the workday on Monday as well. I needed every hour of work so that I could send more money home to my family!
On Monday morning, the doctor, entered my hospital room flanked with a band of nurses and told me. “Kidney failure. Chronic kidney failure.”
I didn’t even understand the implications of my diagnosis at first.
I had been so concerned for my job and my family’s dependence on my earnings that I had pushed away concern for my own body. “How soon will I be able to return to work?” I pressed the nurses.
The nurses were particularly helpful during this time, spending lots of time by my bed and speaking slowly in Chinese so that I could understand. Some also spoke English with me. They would tell me how much they liked me, how strong I was for coping with tragedy at a young age. They often expressed their fear for my safety should I return home to the Philippines’ health-care system.
Nurses and doctors taught me about the body’s “renal system,” as they called it. I learned the kidneys are charged with cleaning the circulatory system—sorting out impurities and recycling the important components of blood. Once kidneys stop functioning, metabolic wastes begin accumulating and the body becomes unable to excrete them. The doctor named common symptoms of renal failure—swelling of the legs and feet, difficulty catching my breath, frequent nausea—and I identified having recently experienced each of them. Kidney failure is frequently hereditary; I realized not only is my father diabetic, but both of my mother’s siblings have kidney failure and undergo frequent dialysis.
Once I learned more about what kidneys were supposed to do and what mine didn’t do, I still didn’t want to undergo dialysis: why should I let myself be hooked up to a machine? I was scared.
My doctor told me that my renal failure would be fatal if left untreated. If my blood continued to circulate uncleaned, I would eventually succumb to the buildup of metabolic waste and my organs would shut down. I would require hemodialysis at least three times per week for four-hour sessions.
I was released from permanent care at the Chang Gung Hospital on Wednesday, five days after having been emergently admitted, and I returned to my factory dormitory; my doctor had told me that so long as I continued dialysis, I would be able to continue working.
The day I returned to my dorm room in the factory, I was summoned by my broker.
Once I reached my broker’s office, he announced to me that he would not permit me to continue working, despite the doctor’s approval. He had consulted with my employer and the two had decided they “don’t want workers they have to take care of, they want people who will work.” That was what they said.
My broker gave me two options: I could either go home now or else stay in the factory dorms, workless. Expectantly, my boss showed me plane tickets he had already purchased, direct from Taoyuan International Airport to Manila, in nine days. He sent me back to my room and I began preparing to fly home.
It was my friend Aries who told me to go to the Hope Workers’ Center. She could sense that the broker was treating me unfairly and she knew a friend of hers had encountered problems with her broker and found help at the Hope Workers’ Center. I took the city bus to the Hope Workers’ Center, in Zhongli, on Sunday, five days before I was to fly home.
Sir Mhike, the center’s director, met with me. He told me that he was a nurse, which I thought was great; he understood all about my medical condition and my dialysis. He told me that I had a right to healthcare in Taiwan, because I had worked here and been given a card for the National Health Insurance, but if I went home to the Philippines, I would have to pay out of pocket. When I told him the ultimatum I had been given by my broker, Sir Mhike was angry; he told me my broker wanted me to leave Taiwan because once I left the broker would no longer be responsible for my healthcare. Sir Mhike offered to me to stay in the Hope Workers’ Center’s shelter.
I have stayed at the Hope Workers’ Center shelter since November 22, 2016, three days before I was scheduled to return home to the Philippines and lose my healthcare. Since staying in the shelter, I have been provided dialysis three times a week, paid for by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance plan and subsidized by the Hope Workers’ Center.
Soon after being sheltered, Lydia, another caseworker at the Hope Workers’ Center, accompanied me to Chang Gung Hospital to prepare me to begin dialysis. The doctors installed a tube in my chest, enabling the rapid pumping of blood in and out of my body. The tube was one centimeter in diameter and my doctor told me that it would allow for us to begin dialysis more quickly. The procedure wasn’t painful—the worst part was the application of a local anesthetic, which pained my chest region—and the tube was installed. The next day, I experienced my first round of dialysis.
Since I began dialysis in November 2016, I have walked three times a week—Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—to a nearby clinic for four-hour sessions of dialysis.
When I told my broker that I would stay in Taiwan, he was angry, but my caseworker, Lydia, fought for me and allowed me to stay. I will stay in Taiwan until my doctor says that I am medically cleared to fly home.
I like staying at the Hope Workers’ Center’s shelter; I have opportunities to cook tinola and I have raised a rooftop garden.
Growing up, I remember always praying for a perfect life. Maybe that’s common for little girls?
As a little girl, I think I always knew that my family wasn’t wealthy. During times when we couldn’t afford fish or chicken, we would satisfy our need for protein by consuming sweet potatoes with rice. At times, it was only because of my high-school scholarship that we could afford even sweet potatoes! But through all of our poverty and seeing both my parents suffer through pain, I believe I have been blessed and the Lord has a plan for me.
George-Peter Manolid and I met through a mutual friend in Taiwan and he has been a devoted boyfriend throughout my four years of diagnoses. George is compassionate, supportive, and very loving. He is also a Filipino working in Taiwan and we have discussed what the future may hold for us—perhaps marriage and the beginning of a family in the Philippines. The doctor said it would be possible for me to have a baby, though it would likely require that I increase my rate of dialysis from three times per week to four.
Just this week, I had an operation to reroute the tube that connects me three times a week to the dialysis machine. A tube had been installed in my chest soon after my diagnosis, but it was moved this week to my wrist, which the doctors hope will be a more permanent source for dialysis. My doctor hopes that the surgery this week may mean that I can return home to the Philippines, back to my father’s house. With a safer method for application of dialysis, my doctor is hopeful that I can find a good clinic to apply my three-times-weekly dose of dialysis near my family’s home.
Kidney failure is a rich man’s disease. Once I return to the Philippines, each session will cost ₱3,500 (NT$2,135), thrice per week. I will no longer be covered by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance plan so I don’t how I will pay for this continued treatment plus the expenses of my father’s diabetes medication, but I can only pray that God will provide.
The doctor and I have also discussed a kidney transplant and my brother has volunteered to give me a kidney, though we have yet to seriously explore whether he would be a compatible donor because the cost of such a surgery would be prohibitive.
When the doctor told me my diagnosis, on that unforgettable Monday still less than a year ago, I remember turning to my boyfriend: ‘I have to work for my family. They all don’t have work. All their money is from me.’ And so I said to him, ‘I think that is God’s plan.’
I don’t think about my sickness as a challenge to my faith because I know God has a plan. Maybe getting sick was a part that will lead to something new and surprising?
This reflection by Catherine Zamora has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like Catherine’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.
The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!