Amidst the pandemic, VJ and Melissa Cunanan, who are both celebrating 30 years in the nursing profession, maintain their positivity and vibrant faith. “We always pray for everyone’s safety and also for ourselves,” says Melissa. On three occasions, Melissa’s inadvertent prolonged exposures to COVID-19 patients forced her to undergo quarantine and testing. “But God is good all the time,” she adds. She tested negative on all counts.
Melissa is a charge/staff nurse and preceptor at the Neurology Intensive Care Unit of the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center. VJ works as a charge nurse at the Bone Marrow Transplant Department for the same institution. As frontliners, they rely on God for strength and the promise He made in John 14:1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
Both earned their Bachelor of Science degrees in Nursing in the Philippines. VJ is a graduate of the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, while Melissa graduated from the prestigious University of the Philippines. In 1994, they met in Abilene, Texas, as part of a group of 39 nurses recruited for Hendrick Medical Center. After three years of craving career growth, Melissa moved to the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
VJ, who never showed more than professional and friendly regard for Melissa, switched gear and pursued her in the typical Filipino fashion. Courtship back then didn’t have the convenience of Zoom and Facetime. Cellphone bills and airfare made a huge hole in his pocket, but this didn’t deter him. Love won, and Melissa finally buckled.
On April 9, 1999, they tied the knot in Sanctuario de San Antonio, Philippines. Because of VJ’s work visa restrictions, Melissa decided to move back to Abilene. Later on, they settled in Dallas, worked at UTSW, and became members of St. Ann Parish in Coppell. They joined the Mary Immaculate parish when their three boys started attending Mary Immaculate School (MIS) in kindergarten.
During their years at MIS, Cole (19) and Caden (15) not only excelled in academics but also in the Dallas Parochial League Basketball All-Stars. Considering VJ’s passion for the sport, this comes as no surprise. Camren (13), now in 8th grade, traded balls for spelling and is currently the Private School and Dallas Diocese Spelling Bee Champion.
Between basketball tournaments, spelling bee contests, and alternating graveyard shifts with VJ working weekdays and Melissa on weekends, they still manage to spend quality time as a family. They often travel and try different dishes from other cultures.
During their common off-days, they leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Despite Melissa’s permanent weekend night shifts, they never miss Sunday mass. They’ve been members of the St. Ann Parish for 20 years and Mary Immaculate Church for 15 years. “We enjoy being part of both parishes because they offer a lot of activities for the whole family. We were active in fall festivals. I was also a room parent,” Melissa says.
Beyond parish and school involvement is their engagement with the Philippine Nurses Association of America (PNAA), where Melissa is the National Membership Chairman, Assistant Treasurer, and the Immediate Past Chapter President of the Philippine Nurses Association of North Texas (PNANT). Under her leadership, the membership grew by 159% and organized many health awareness and community events, which earned PNANT the award for Outstanding Community Outreach Services and Membership Growth. In their biggest outreach event, they distributed more than 2,000 pounds of food to 150 families. They promoted stroke awareness, put up blood pressure stations, and trained laypeople on administering CPR. When the pandemic surged, PNANT distributed face shields, masks, and hand sanitizers to local nursing homes and elementary schools and engaged in the Fil-American Coalition of Leaders’ Mask-is-a-Must Campaign.
As the team captain, Melissa organized the first virtual heart walk for the American Heart Association’s Annual Heart Walk and won the Awesome Team Spirit Award. Melissa would bring more honor to the family when she received the 2020 D Magazine Excellence in Nursing Award for Direct Care, the 2020 Dallas-Fort Worth Great 100 Nurses Award, the Daisy Award for Nurses, the UT Southwestern Clinical Excellence Award Nominee, and the 2019 Roscon Foundation Top 10 Mother of the Year Award (DFW).
What is the secret behind such a vibrant faith that produces much fruit? We find it in their motto: “The family that prays together stays together” and their devotion to the rosary.
They, too, have their share of thorns with the roses. In 2014, Melissa had a health scare, which led to surgery. “Thank God, there was no sign of cancer,” she says. In 2019, Camren’s visual issues revealed an autoimmune disorder, requiring weekly immunosuppressant injection. They find refuge in the intercession of San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint, and keep their faith in the Lord with daily prayers.
They are grateful to the local business sponsors for supporting their Catholic community through these challenging times and have this message to share, “We are all in this together. Everyone needs to remain kind to each other.”
This feature story appeared in print in the North Dallas Parish Neighbors Catholic Magazine - January 2021 edition. Publisher: Diane Hoyt Voirin of the Decided Excellence Catholic Media.