Fil-Am actress Aina Dumlao channels stories from family in playing Filipina nurse ‘Gerlie’
MANILA, Philippines — Fil-Am actress Aina Dumlao need not look far for inspiration in playing the groundbreaking role of a Filipina nurse in a long-running medical series in the United States.
In an INQside Look interview, Dumlao shared that she channeled the stories of some of her relatives, who work as nurses in the U.S., into the role of Gerlie Bernardo, a COVID-hit Filipina nurse, who was featured in the final episode of Grey’s Anatomy’s 17th season.
“I didn’t talk to anyone, but a lot of my family members are overseas Filipino workers, my cousins and nieces, and nephews,” Dumlao said when asked if she reached out to any Filipino nurses to prepare for the role.
Dumlao’s character was seen as a breakthrough in American medical dramas since they usually lack representation of Filipino nurses despite many of them working in hospitals in the U.S. in real life.
“I have literally an entire family of seven in Chicago who are nurses, so I know their stories, especially during COVID. One of my nieces in Chicago was telling me, she actually sought out my help because they weren’t given hazard pay for COVID that they were supposed to get so I helped her write a letter saying: ‘This is not right. We were here at the ground level of the pandemic’,” Dumlao said.
“I intimately know what Filipino-American nurses have been experiencing throughout COVID so I just had to kind of channel all of my learned experiences and the stories that I personally know into Gerlie,” she added.
She also said she worked hard to infuse the loving spirit of Filipinos amid the pandemic into her character.
“We’re still smiling [amid the pandemic] because that’s typical of what a Filipino is: smiling through the pain and through hardship and I really worked hard to imbue Gerlie with kind of like that Filipino loving spirit and smiling no matter what,” Dumlao said.
But with the process of auditioning for the role and landing the job, to the taping the episode happening “pretty fast,” the Fil-Am actress said she did not immediately fully realize the impact of her role.
“I was lucky that when I booked the role, I didn’t fully realize the impact that it had, otherwise, I probably would have been too nervous to keep my head on straight,” she said.
But once the episode aired in the U.S., she was able to “step back” and “felt the honor and all the emotions that came along with that.”
“So many Filipinos have reached out and a lot of them are very, very emotional and grateful that they could finally see somebody who looked like them on such a long-running medical show and playing a Filipino-American nurse at that,” she said.
“I can finally step back and realize that it’s such an impactful role and I really took to heart that a lot of Filipino-Americans, Filipino nurses all over the world have been hit hard by the pandemic,” Dumlao added.
According to the actress, the majority of the messages she got after the episode aired were from Filipino nurses as well as the families of Filipino healthcare workers abroad.
“I’ve gotten a mix of messages, like a lot of them are Grey’s Anatomy fans so not just Filipinos, but majority of them are from Filipinos. Nurses, families of nurses that are left behind in the Philippines, because their family members are abroad to provide for their families,” she said.
She also shared a story of a Filipino friend, battling cancer, who was stuck in the United Kingdom when pandemic lockdowns were imposed there.
“She was very emotional, she was actually crying when she told me the story…She had no contact with her family or friends for I think two or three months. The Filipino nurses were the only ones that helped her get through it. Even they (Filipino nurses) themselves were hit with COVID but then as soon as they recovered they went back to work right away because they were understaffed and they had to take care of their patients,” Dumlao said.
She then pointed to the sacrifices of Filipino nurses who contract COVID-19 but still choose to go back to work immediately to take care of patients.
“You know here in America, I think 4 percent of nurses are Filipinos, Filipino-Americans. But then the casualty that’s related to COVID is like 20 percent to like 34 percent and it’s because of that, you go back to work right away even if you got sick COVID because he needs to take care of your patients, that’s kind of like the Filipino caring heart. That’s undeniably Pinoy,” she added.