Elcee Cagas Conner: A global leader in respiratory care

Elcee in Peru in 2016.  ‘Health professionals in South America are hungry for more critical care education.’ 

By Maricar CP Hampton

When the global coronavirus pandemic erupted in early 2020, it was difficult for most people to understand what an incredible challenge it would become.  For Elcee Cagas Conner, president of the Asia Pacific Association for Respiratory Care (APARC), it was one of the many challenges she spent her life preparing for.  

In the last year, she has been actively communicating with health care professionals around the world to spread information to physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals on how to provide life-saving medical care to desperate patients facing obstacles and limitations that few had imagined.   She developed these contacts through years of attending medical conferences in various parts of the world, and nurturing relationships with educators and practitioners of respiratory and critical care medicine, as well as sponsoring training programs not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but in Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and Central and South Asia.

Elcee came to the United States from Malolos, Bulacan, in 1973, when her father, Dr. Cosme Cagas, was forced to leave the country due to his opposition to martial law.  He was a pediatrician and took a position on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.  As a result, she finished high school there, and then graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center with a degree in Cardiorespiratory Science. 

She initially worked as a flight therapist on helicopters bringing premature infants into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She would soon join the faculty at St. Louis Community College in St. Louis, Missouri, teaching respiratory therapy and later became the director of Clinical Education.

Elcee conducting educational training in one of the largest hospitals in Jakarta, Indonesia. In this photo, she is with an intubated patient with adult respiratory distress syndrome.
With father Dr. Cosme Cagas in Mexico.  At age 12, she was her father’s secretary in his Malolos, Bulacan clinic.

She was a key founder of APARC in 1992, working alongside the late Dr. Herminia Cifra of the University of the Philippines medical school in Manila, and the late Dr. Jun Takezawa of the University of Nagoya in Japan.  The organization grew in popularity in the 1990s and held conventions in the Philippines, Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, among other countries, as well as coordinated with friends, such as Dr. Jie Chen of China, head of the non-infectious disease department at the World Health Organization. 

In 1999, APARC sponsored a training program for Chinese mainland physicians and nurses in Beijing, co-sponsored by the Minister of Health of China, garnering an attendance of more than 3,000 health professionals.  Faculty from Europe and the United States were invited for a hands-on experience with ventilators and instruction on how to set up and operate intensive care units, provide oxygen and other respiratory support.  This educational training would later prove critical when SARS-CoV-1 struck China in 2004, as all the ventilators in the country at the time proved insufficient, and donations of ventilators outside the country were necessary.  It also showed how shortages of trained personnel could hamper efforts to surge essential care.

Since then, Elcee has spoken extensively on disaster preparedness, humanization and mental health support for patients in the critical care settings, as well as the importance of inspiring young people to engage in health careers.  She would travel overseas to dozens of conventions and other training programs and has been a highly sought-after educator.  She is known to the faculties of most of the world’s medical institutions.

She laments how respiratory therapy professionals are ‘generally out of the limelight compared to doctors and nurses.’ 

Now that respiratory therapy has become a vital frontline occupation, and as poor countries are facing the prospect of having their hospitals overwhelmed by seriously ill patients, Elcee is hoping to aid in responding to these challenges.  She continues to actively attend online conferences. The next APARC convention is currently planned for the end of this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“I have always been inspired by the world leadership that Filipinos have shown in health research and clinical education,” she said in an interview with The FilAm.   

Most of all, she was inspired by her father, who in 1986 founded the Philippine Economic and Cultural Endowment (PEACE), an organization that has funded many hundreds of artesian wells for safe drinking water for poor Filipino communities. PEACE has organized feeding programs in Filipino schools for underweight children, and provided scholarships for more advanced education to talented Filipino youth.   For PEACE and other initiatives, he received the Lingkod sa Kapwa Pilipino (Linkapil) Award from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Elcee is currently president of the Auxiliary of the Association of Philippine Physicians of America and has been active in that organizations for over 30 years, assisting in many of its medical missions.

“I hope to continue to be an inspiration to the younger generations around the world by living the testimonial of my own experience,” she said.

Forever Business Owner: Nieva Quezon Burdick
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© The FilAm 2021

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