Alumni Spotlight: Meet Vikki de los Reyes, Philippines FETP Graduate (2006), Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow and Surveillance and Training Officer for the Philippines FETP
By Tina Rezvani, Communications Manager, TEPHINET
Vikki, thanks for agreeing to be part of our series spotlighting the work of FETP graduates worldwide. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey to becoming an FETP trainee and how you ended up in your current position?
Thank you for this opportunity, Tina. I was a walk-in applicant [for the FETP] and did not know anybody or anything about the program. One day, I was inquiring about the Department of Health doctor deployment for far-flung areas when I suddenly passed by the FETP office. I went in and the secretary introduced me to the training officers. They explained to me what the program was all about, and I applied right then and there. I started the program two months after. Later on, remembering my time as a walk-in applicant, my training officer told me that he thought I was ready be thrown anywhere (within reason) for field work the very next day when they interviewed me and saw my interest. After completing the FETP in 2006, I managed the Field Health Services Information System, conducted disease surveillance and supported applied health management trainings in the Department of Health. In 2012, I got transferred to become the FETP and Event-based Surveillance and Response program manager.
Congratulations on receiving a Hubert H. Humphrey fellowship. Tell us about this program and the work you’re doing as a fellow.
Thank you! I feel lucky to be a Humphrey Fellow at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. Humphrey Fellows are selected based on their potential for leadership and their commitment to public service. The Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program is a Fulbright exchange activity sponsored by the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the Institute of International Education. It provides ten months of non-degree academic study and related professional experiences in the United States. I choose academic classes for career-related knowledge and interact with colleagues to gain professional expertise. I engage in community work such as sharing with high school seniors at The Galloway School about disease detectives and plan to do volunteer work in a local church. Also, I am looking forward to the Professional Affiliation opportunities and learning how US-based organizations operate. This way, I can make my own contributions and learn from the organization.
What was the most memorable investigation in which you have taken part?
Responding to natural disasters is always memorable for me. I was there on day one of the 2013 Central Visayas earthquake. The energy of the earthquake was described to be equivalent to 32 Hiroshima bombs. People got injured and died. Houses were destroyed and unsafe to live in. Hospitals were shattered. The term in-patient became inaccurate since patients could be found along the road and in parking lots. Birth deliveries were occurring in the parking lots with just curtains covering the patients. This happened with each of the hundreds of aftershocks felt every day. I remember interviewing one of the town mayors about the health situation in his town. He couldn’t help but cry as he shared his experiences and the state of his people.
In 2014, I saw the extent of the devastation in Leyte a week after the Haiyan typhoon struck. It looked like a nuclear bomb had been dropped in the city. Cadavers in body bags lined the roads. A friend of mine who was a health worker in the area recalled her experience. She was so sure she would die the day of the storm. As ocean waters started to surge inside the house, she ensured her body could be identified by wearing on her neck a big identification card with her name written on it. Miraculously, she found her way to the ceiling of the bathroom and stayed there until the waters receded. She was carrying a set of underwear when she was telling me her story. Someone had given them to her because everything she owned had been washed away.
But doing the field work on the first recorded Henipah virus in the Philippines would have to be the most memorable FETP field experience I could think of. Initially, it looked like it was a foodborne outbreak and was due to horse meat consumption. When a health care worker who attended a case got the illness without history of consuming the food, we needed to find out the cause as soon as possible. I still remember my discussions over the phone on what this disease could be with the local epidemiologist counterpart, Dr. Babes, who was also my batch mate in FETP. We felt we have exhausted all our field epidemiology skills in trying to solve the mystery. In the end, international collaborators, inter-agency collaboration and excellent health care workers helped in identifying the cause and source of the outbreak. The outbreak was featured in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. What inspired me the most, though, was the willingness of the widows in the community to cooperate and help find out the cause of their husbands’ and family members’ deaths. Even in their suffering, they were willing to be our partners in this outbreak. I can’t help but think about the children who were left without fathers because of some weird disease the men had acquired and which could have probably been prevented.
As a TEPHIConnect user, what do you hope to gain from this platform?
I believe this platform can be helpful in engaging other alumni to share experiences and what they are currently working on and share current publications or conferences that can be of interest to other alumni.
What makes you most proud in your career?
Sometimes I just blurt out, “I love my job!” even when we (with FETP fellows) are all exhausted in the field. I know they are doing important things and are applying what they have learned. Working on a scientific paper and doing one-on-one with FETP fellows is always exciting for me. Uncovering what the data reveals and determining how best to present the data is magical. Finding that their data is used for policy-making and therefore have public health impact is fulfilling.
I am very proud of what the Philippine FETP fellows are accomplishing and I feel like a big sister to them. They have all become family. I am not always pleasant (hard to imagine, but yes *wink wink*) but it stems from motivating them to be the best that they can be. So yeah, “enough sleep” is not option sometimes.
I have always been surrounded by my own mentors who gave me the best environment to be myself and who have been very generous with their knowledge, time and energy. I am definitely a lucky one.
I feel privileged and inspired by the Philippine healthcare workers in disease surveillance and outbreak response. There is a lot of very promising young(er) blood rising to be future leaders in the Philippine FETP.
In general, what advice would you give to other recent FETP graduates?
Find a mentor who will help you achieve what you want to achieve. It is good to have skills but it is important to be guided by a good leader who believes in you and have the same vision as you do in public health. So, I would definitely go with our FETP slogan as a guide in this vision, “Integrity and Excellence in Field Epidemiology.”
Vikki is a member of TEPHIConnect. Other members can get in touch with her here.