He was training to be a cardiologist. Checkered polo shirt, short-sleeved white coat, a stethoscope around his neck, eyes on the verge of disappearing as he tilts his head to the right and breaks into a gentle smile—his photos that circulated on social media ticked all the boxes. Before pursuing this career path, he had chosen to serve for two years as a doctor to the barrio in Occidental Mindoro, and immediately one would have known that this cardiology fellow’s heart was in the right place. On March 21, the news of Dr. Israel Bactol’s death reverberated throughout the Filipino medical community, as everyone tried to make sense of what was happening, too fast, too soon. He was 34.
Last Tuesday morning, after doing patient rounds in Philippine General Hospital (PGH), I came across two nurses from the emergency department, walking in the opposite direction towards the hospital. It was the first workday after President Rodrigo Duterte put Luzon on enhanced community quarantine, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
In 2019, I became a fellow of the 58th University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop. To apply for the workshop, I had to submit an essay explaining who I am, what I write, and why I write. This was my poetics essay.
Because medicine is rooted in the humanities. It is never just about the science. These stories are about doctors and/or patients, and how they face disease and death. We don’t read that from Harrison, Nelson, Williams, or Schwartz.
Noong 2016, matapos kong ipasa ang manuscript ng aking libro sa unang publishing house na sinubukan kong pagpasahan, hiningan ako ng mga kuwentong katatawanan mula sa med school upang mabalanse ang mga mabibigat na istorya mula sa residency training. Heto ang anim na kuwentong nahalungkat ko mula sa blog ko noong ako ay medical student pa. Wala ito sa librong ilalabas ng U.P. Press sa susunod na taon. Ito ay para sa lahat ng med student na kasalukuyang nahihirapan subalit patuloy na umaasa at hindi sumusuko sa laban.
Every year, when the winners of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature are announced, you always read about first-time awardees who succeed on their first attempt, and in a major category at that. This isn’t one of those stories.
Not a lot of people know that many years before I became a doctor, I was a patient first.
It was a month after my high school graduation and the euphoria of getting accepted to the UP College of Medicine had not yet subsided. I spent whole days wondering about, dreaming of, and planning the next seven years of my life. I was excited to meet new friends who would come from all over the country. For sure, they must be just as excited as I was to dress in white, hold a scalpel, and learn how to use a stethoscope.
I struggled during my first two years of medical school in the University of the Philippines (UP). This I can say only in retrospect, not because of a lack of awareness at that time, but more so because I refused to acknowledge how I felt. I thought I was OK. I wanted to believe I was OK. Many years later, as a doctor and teacher at the same medical school, I can say I wasn’t.