The Sunday Magazine

How a mother's quest to provide for her children inspired a passion for nursing

Like countless Filipina women, Maria Roman chose to work abroad as a nurse to support her children at home and create a prosperous future.

'I guess this is a calling and I can help my family,' says Maria Roman

Twin sisters Jenifer Tabamo, left, and Jacqueline Lum, far right. were honoured as distinguished University of British Columbia alumni at the 2018 Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of B.C. award celebrations. They're pictured here with their mother, Maria Roman. (Submitted by Joseph Tabamo)

For as long as Jacqueline Lum and Jenifer Tabamo can remember, nursing has been the thread holding together their life experiences. 
The twin sisters were born in a small village in the province of Tarlac in the Philippines. Their journey of overcoming poverty to become nursing superstars in B.C.'s lower mainland is a long one, built upon decades of sacrifice and heartbreak.
The sisters grew up surrounded by nurses. Half a dozen of their aunts were nurses. Their best role model was their mother, Maria Roman, who used nursing as a vehicle out of poverty.  
"She is the strong force and inspiration for our family," said Tabamo. 
Roman married young and had three children, twin daughters and a son. Her daughters describe her as the breadwinner in a fraught marriage.

Maria Roman graduated from nursing in 1991. (Submitted by Maria Roman)

While working menial jobs at the local hospital and raising a family, Roman attended night school to study nursing.  

'This is a calling and I can help my family'

Like countless other Filipina women, Roman knew that the only way to make enough money to support her children was to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave them and work abroad.  
When the girls were 11 years old, shortly after Roman graduated from nursing, she was offered work in a hospital in the Middle East. 
"I guess this is a calling and I can help my family," she said. 
Her first night in Saudi Arabia, she lay awake in the dorm room she shared with a group of other Filipina nurses.

"From now on, you will be a bird," she said to herself. "During the day I will work. At night I will fly to see them. Every night I do that, in my dream, in my mind."

'I want more for my children'

"It was really hard because now we're lost. I'm lost," remembers Tabamo. "I don't know how to restart myself and take things from there. But in my mind I know that her love for us is so great that she has to make that decision for our own future."
After a couple of years of trying, the money from nursing turned out not to be enough. Roman made another hard decision ⁠— to leave nursing and take on other jobs that together paid more.

She went to all these different places to find the best place for her family to grow into. She did all of that for us.- Jenifer Tabamo

She worked her way through Europe as a nanny, a house cleaner, a caregiver to the elderly ⁠— among countless other jobs ⁠— looking for opportunity. She eventually settled in Canada, sending home whatever money whenever she could. 
"She went to all these different places to find the best place for her family to grow into. She did all of that for us," said Tabamo.
"I want more for my children, not for myself," said Roman. "In my mind, at night, I go home and I look at three of them. Like what's next in the future."

'This is exactly where I want to be'

Back home in the Philippines, her daughters were thriving in school. 
They graduated at the top of their class from a prestigious all girls Catholic high school. Following in their mother's footsteps and inspired by her, they chose nursing in university and graduated cum laude. 
Roman's dream was finally being realized. When the sisters graduated, they and their younger brother flew to Canada to be reunited with their mother. 
"She had four jobs here in Canada. We almost didn't see her because of her night shifts. It was a transition, it was an adjustment. It was bittersweet," said Tabamo.

Twin sisters Jenifer Tabamo, left, and Jacqueline Lum inherited their passion for nursing from their mother. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

The sisters landed jobs together as registered nurses together at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) in a long-term care facility. 
"From the very first job, I knew. This is my path. This is exactly where I want to be, making a difference in my patients' lives," said Lum.

From long-term care, the sisters moved together into acute care at VGH and pursued their master's degrees to become advanced practice nurses from the University of British Columbia (UBC). 
"I wanted to do more as a nurse and being able to advance my education and blend the practice of nursing and medicine, I was able to have an even louder voice," said Lum.
Once established in their careers, the daughters urged their mother to finally realize her own dream of being a nurse. "We said, 'You know, mom, it's your time to go back to school.' Because at that time she never really worked as a nurse in Canada," said Lum. 
"She's given so much that [we thought] it's her time."

'My wildest dream came true'

Roman did go back to school to become a licenced practical nurse. She now works in extended care at Vancouver General Hospital, the same place where her daughters got their start.
Today, Lum works as a nurse practitioner in the cardiac clinic at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster. Tabamo is a clinical nurse specialist at Vancouver General Hospital. Their brother, who immigrated with them, also works as a licensed practical nurse.

From left to right: Paulo Lum, Jairo Tabamo, Jenifer Tabamo, Pilar Lum, Maria Roman and Jacqueline Lum. (Jennifer Chrumka/CBC)

And the legacy of nursing continues in Roman's family. Tabamo's 19-year-old son Jairo is pursuing health care. He's studying pharmacy at UBC and volunteers where his mother works at VGH.
"My wildest dream came true," said Roman. "At the end, all the trials and journey and I did it. And I can say it's a successful journey."
"You know the bird, it's resting now."

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