By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was the beginning of World War II. Bombs dropped from the sky onto the streets of Manila, Philippines. As people dove for cover, American nurses stationed there for the war ran to give wet towels to Filipinos to protect them from inhaling any toxic gases in the air.
It was in the middle of this chaos that Tonie Alejo found her passion for nursing. Though she was only a child at the time, she was inspired by the courageous acts of these nurses who risked their lives to aid those in need.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always liked to help others, the sick … to relieve the miserable and make them more comfortable,” said Alejo. “My mother always thought that I’d become a nun since she knows that I like to help people.”
When Alejo enrolled at Maryknoll College in Manila, she had intended to study piano. But when her grandmother became ill and needed a private nurse to look after her, Alejo was reminded of the American nurses from her childhood, and this reignited her desire to care for others.
Alejo’s mother also knew about her true passion. “I still wanted to study music [in college], but my mom just said, ‘You know, you can still play the piano even if you become a nurse,’ ” said Alejo.
She went to the University of the Philippines’ nursing school and then completed her residency at the Philippine General Hospital, both located in Manila. Soon after, she passed the national nursing and civil service exams. She eventually went on to become a private nurse.
In 1957, Alejo got her first taste of working abroad when Rotary International — an organization of businesses and professionals that promote humanitarian services and goodwill around the world — hosted her stay in Washington, D.C., where she took classes and worked at Georgetown University Hospital.
“There were only 18 nurses [that the Rotary International hosted] from the Philippines … we took classes and worked in all parts of the school’s hospital, and after you passed the exams, you picked one expertise,” said Alejo. She decided to become an obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/GYN).
Alejo’s new position placed her at the forefront of births. One of her most memorable on-the-job experiences was when she was the charge nurse on the floor where former First Lady Jackie Kennedy gave birth to her son, John Kennedy, Jr.
“Although I was busy working the floor, I did help set up her birth room … [Kennedy] had three nurses assigned to help her, but I did get a chance to talk to her,” said Alejo. “She thought I was so tall!”
Alejo stayed at Georgetown University Hospital for five years. She left her position to fly home and wed her then-fiancée of five years. After her marriage, Alejo returned to private nursing before she returned to America. This time, her sights were set on Seattle.
“My godchild had come to Seattle before, and his mother told me to [come here] because she thought it was a nice place,” said Alejo. After applying for employment with Seattle hospitals, she was hired by Virginia Mason Medical Center, which agreed to sponsor her and her husband’s move to America.
After 27 years at Virginia Mason, Alejo retired. But she continued helping people through volunteer opportunities in the local Filipino community, such as helping with event planning for the Filipino Nurses’ Healthcare Professionals Association of Seattle (FNHCPA) or arranging Red Cross classes for the Filipino Community of Seattle (FCS).
“[Alejo] welcomed me to [FNHCPA] and both recognized and accepted my leadership right away,” said Esther Simpson, the current adviser and former president of FNHCPA who has volunteered with Alejo for many years. “Tonie has a history of being involved with the Seattle Filipino community … and even after retirement, she has not wavered in her commitment to our community.”
“She has a dedication to serve the community,” said Sheila Burrus in regards to why she nominated Alejo for the Pioneers in Healthcare award. Burrus is a board member at FCS. “She’s been a pioneer in bringing the nurses together in Washington [state].”
Staying strong at 86 years of age, Alejo doesn’t show signs of slowing down her selfless efforts any time soon. In addition to volunteering locally, she also sponsors children through international organizations. She sends money abroad to pay for the basic living expenses of six children in the Philippines and one child in Brazil.
“This is why I look young,” said Alejo, unfazed by her age. “It’s because my mind is always on something I have to do for other people.” ♦
For more information, visit www.FCSeattle.org.
Tonie Alejo is being honored as a Pioneer in Healthcare at an awards banquet on Oct. 1. For more information or to buy tickets, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.