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

Love in the Time of Ebola, Bird Flu, and SARS


It was the day before Valentine’s.

I was on the bus home, pondering how I would spend my nth Single Awareness Day (or SAD, as our kind would call it), comforted by the thought of not having to buy overpriced flowers, not having to fall in line just to get the most foreign-sounding box of chocolates, and not having to bother about getting a haircut.   Such is the resolve we take.  And by “we,” I refer to people who have gotten tired of looking, and instead have contented themselves with waiting.

He was in his middle 30s, clutching a five-, maybe six-year-old girl who I presumed was his daughter.  When instead of taking a seat he opted to hold on to a handrail and stay in the aisle, I figured he was up to something.

Only three groups of people do that after stepping into a bus with still vacant seats:  the inspectors, the vendors and the beggars.  He neither possessed the bus company ID nor spoke to the conductor, so he clearly was not of the first group.  It was safe to assume that he was not selling his child, the only thing he held at that time, so he was not a vendor either.  In an attempt to test my “clinical eye,” I noticed that he did not have the trademark purple collection bags of bus preachers and that his rather clean, white polo short did not fit into the profile of a worker on-strike.  I was intrigued.

Then he lifted his head and spoke, in a tentative voice filled with so much trembling he could have easily been an elementary pupil being asked to recite his first poem in front of the class.

“Magandang ha-hapon po… maang-hihingi la-ang po saaa-na ng tulong.”

The bus conductor appeared beside me and asked for my fare.  I fumbled for the 50-peso bill in my pocket while trying to discern what the father in the aisle was saying four rows from where I sat.

“Pampa-dialysis lang po ng… asawa ko.  Maaang-hi… hingi lang po sana… ng tulong.  Kaaa-hit magkano lang po.”

At this point, his daughter woke up and rubbed her eyes, perhaps puzzled by the sea of strangers to whom her father was speaking.  The father, on the verge of crying in public, stroked her long wavy hair and proceeded to the row behind mine.  He took a seat, his daughter on his lap.

It was obviously the first time he said his piece.  Brief, unrehearsed, and yet it had with it a sincerity never attained by preachers who foretell of apocalypse, even by homeless beggars in their dirtiest clothes.

Inside my head I was computing.  For charity patients in Philippine General Hospital, the first dialysis session costs about seven thousand pesos.  Succeeding dialysis sessions cost two thousand pesos each.  Patients on end-stage renal disease optimally require three dialysis sessions weekly, at least two if the budget is really tight.  Hence, a PGH charity patient easily spends 300,000 pesos on dialysis alone, if he or she wishes to live for one more year.  The price, of course, skyrockets for private patients, who would also have to pay for the professional fees of their physicians.

The bus conductor handed me my change.  I pocketed the coins, and then gave the 20-peso bill to the father pleading for help.  He expressed his thanks with a weak smile.

I am a single medical student pondering on flowers, chocolates and haircuts on the day before Valentine’s, and I have with me a case of a married man in his middle 30s begging for money so that he would not lose the mother of his child.  Diagnosis?


He could not have done that if it were not for love.  Of this I am certain.

As certain as I am, that this essay would have been more appropriately titled “Love in the Time of End-Stage Renal Disease.”  But no reader would have been interested in such a title.

At a time when there is widespread fear of contracting Ebola, SARS and bird flu, few Filipinos realize that the real love stories do not come from these somewhat obscure illnesses, but from diseases that, despite their being preventable and/or treatable, are so prevalent it would undeniably break your heart to realize people still die from them.

Take tuberculosis for instance.  Every day, 75 Filipinos die of what has been dubbed as the “National Disease of the Philippines.”  This figure easily translates to 75 wives who would lose 75 husbands, 75 sets of siblings who would lose 75 fathers or mothers, or 75 sad endings on Valentine’s Day and every day after that.  That is even worse than a daily ULTRA stampede.

Shifting to another infectious disease, one-third of Filipinos carry the Hepatitis B virus.  Just last month, I witnessed a mother stay in the Pediatrics ER for three straight days so she could stay beside her jaundiced baby diagnosed to have neonatal hepatitis and syphilis, practically dismissing the need to change her clothes, eat her meals on time, or even sleep.  It was obligatory maternal love, I remember telling myself when I first saw the mother and child.  Then I found out that the infant was adopted.  I was left in awe.  Why do these kinds of love stories never make it to newspapers or the big screen?

Filipinos prefer the tragic and the sensational over the chronic and the socially relevant.  The effect?  Our countrymen panic when authorities discover a single fatal case of meningococcemia and stockpile the most durable masks when news on SARS crossing borders breaks out.

Who then bothers about TB? HIV? Hepatitis? Pneumonia? Diarrhea? Malnutrition? Stroke? Hypertension? End-stage renal disease?

In the time of Ebola, bird flu and SARS, Filipinos look for love in the wrong places.  As a result, we die of the wrong reasons, too.

About the author

Ron Baticulon

Ronibats is a pediatric neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer. In 2018, he won a Palanca award for the title essay of his upcoming book, "Some Days You Can't Save Them All" (UP Press, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter @ronibats.


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