Ronibats.PH Stories of a Filipino neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer



Gutterboy drops his bag on the floor and throws his keys on top of his study table. Today, he took his last exam. That his first year in medical school is over still seems surreal to him. He has long wished for this day to come, and now that it has, the feeling of relief overwhelms him.

He fingers the buttons of his upper garment, taking care not to pull too hard, else the worn-out stitches suspending the buttons would give in, a perennial problem among medical students.

Gutterboy remembers the day he first wore his then immaculate white uniform. They were supposed to begin wearing the complete set during the first exam, and although some of his classmates started wearing theirs one week before the scheduled date, he decided to wait. He recounts how he repeatedly fitted his uniforms in front of a full-length mirror — at home, in his dorm, in his classmates’ dorm — before finally deciding that, no, he would not need to return them to the tailor for repairs.

It takes Gutterboy an awfully long time to decide. And when he does, it takes him an awfully short time to change his mind. That is why he is never good at guessing during exams.

He scratches his head as he realizes how many class top tens he missed because of intelligent guesses he erased. He grins. How many exams will it take for him to realize that his first guess is almost always right?

Gutterboy knows that missing the top ten is besides the point. He just wants to maintain his academic scholarship, that is all. He is tired of competing. He has been competing all his life. Competition drives him to excel, but it also wears him out. Not worth it. So he stopped competing in medical school. At least, he thinks he did.

Too often, when Gutterboy’s mind drifts while he is doing something, he does not remember doing that something at all. It probably is the reason why he misplaces everything. When Gutterboy’s thoughts wander, all actions switch to auto-pilot.

It is thus with surprise that Gutterboy found himself already sitting on his chair, his white uniform folded neatly on the study table, his feet searching for his rubber slippers. Another scratching of the head. He does think too much.

He leans on the wooden table his father built for him. It was early June and he was contemplating on buying a ready-made table when he thought of making the request to his father, who did not hesitate to say yes. For two weekends, his father labored on the carpentry work.

All Gutterboy had to do was buy the materials, and in an instant, he got a custom-made table, complete with a drawer that had compartments for all his useless stuff. How many medical students get to experience that with their fathers?

Gutterboy’s parents love him. When his mother texts him in the middle of the week, insisting that he go home for the weekend, he becomes surer of that. He becomes more thankful, too.

His father also made him a bookshelf, where most of his books, either bought or borrowed but mostly untouched, are now stacked. He enjoys reading medical books. There is much too be learned from them, but sadly, not enough to help him hurdle the passing mark.

It is pointless to read every page of a medical book without memorizing one’s lecture transcriptions. Some say understanding is the key, but Gutterboy knows that understanding without memory work will get him nowhere. Med is the place where Gutterboy developed the habit of setting aside learning in order to pass an exam.

His one-year’s worth of lecture transcriptions are all filed underneath his desk: more than half a feet of photocopied sheets of long bond paper, excluding the self-instructional modules and handouts of some professors. Does he really know all that information? He knows he does not. He knows that if he is to retake the very same exams he took last year, he will fail most of them.

Routines easily bore Gutterboy. First year of medical school is mostly routine: a professor gives a boring lecture, a group of his classmates transcribes the lecture, Gutterboy gets his transcriptions (“trans”) from his trans box, he painstakingly tries to memorize every detail, he takes the exam, he forgets everything one day later. The cycle repeats every exam, with a periodicity of one exam a week.

In fact, what Gutterboy remembers most about first year is him lying on his bed, trying desperately to read his trans in the wee hours of the morning with a study lamp above his head. He loves his bed sheet and pillows. They have moons, suns, stars and ringed planets printed on them in white and different shades of blue. It is a pity Gutterboy feels like a fugitive whenever he sleeps for six hours during exam nights.

Wardworks had been his refuge. He met six patients this year. Gutterboy delights in having to meet a patient, not just to localize the neurological deficit, but to interact with him or her. He will never forget the patient who advised him to buy three flowers for his Valentine’s date, the mother who said her son has “weak lungs” instead of “tuberculosis,” even the patient who refused to be touched by male medical students. Gutterboy feels he enjoyed wardworks because they made him feel like a real doctor, not like a floppy disk tasked to store and delete information every so often.

A mosquito approaches his right knee. He slaps it but misses, and notices a brown smudge on the right lap of his white pants instead. Chocolate. Gutterboy likes chocolates. Chocolates make him feel good.

Since he began medical school, he has taken note of the things that make him feel good. Aside from chocolates, those that have so far made it to his list are banana-cue, a Lightning Crashes article on the Peyups homepage, Manila Bay at night, Jars of Clay on the radio, and being hugged.

He tries to remember the good things whenever he feels bad. Good things drive bad feelings away.

One week ago, Gutterboy cried over the phone while talking to a friend. He cried hard, harder than he ever has for quite some time. He did not expect to. The suddenness of anger, anxiety and frustration was enough to push him to the edge of falling part. He felt helpless and pathetic.

Very few people see Gutterboy cry. Everybody thinks Gutterboy’s world is perfect. Medical school is not.

After first year, Gutterboy does not know if he has finally learned to accept his limitations, or if he simply has tolerated mediocrity. Is he not managing his time wisely, or is he spreading himself too thin? He passes his exams, yes, but is he learning enough to actually be a good doctor when he graduates four years from now?

Every day is a struggle. Every day he questions himself: “Am I holding on to the things I value? Or am I letting them go for lesser things?” There are good days, there are shitty days. There are times when he feels he can do anything, there are days when he just wants to run away. Thank God all that is put on pause for two months.

In April, Gutterboy will cease to be a teenager. He figures that if he wants to be a doctor, he has a lot of growing up to do.

But Gutterboy is tired today. He can grow up tomorrow. Right now, he needs to feel good.

If only he can remember where he left his last chocolate bar.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— Oscar Wilde

About the author

Ron Baticulon

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Ronibats.PH Stories of a Filipino neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer