Using her then box-type cellular phone with a 15-minute battery life, my unassuming mother delivered the good news that would ultimately lay down my career path.
“Anak, congratulations! Nakapaskil dito sa blackboard. Nakapasa ka!”
She called from the lobby of Calderon Hall, the administration building of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM). She would have been staring at my complete name in all caps on the board where the names of successful UPCM applicants are posted each year. I was a hundred kilometers away, spending the summer of 2001 with my maternal relatives in Bataan as I customarily did during school breaks.
I couldn’t have been more elated to hear her exuberant voice, telling me that I had been accepted into INTARMED (INTegrated Liberal–ARts MEDicine), the accelerated medicine program of UP. I remember running all the way to the memorial park nearby, to lie down on the grass, look up to the sky, and say my prayer of thanks. I was going to be a doctor, the first one in the family, and only in seven years’ time.
I first heard about INTARMED from our family pediatrician Dr. B, during a consult for a three-day cough. When Dr. B found out that I was graduating with top honors and that I intended to go to UP, she immediately urged me to apply for it. The idea of going into a straight-medicine program immediately after high school graduation was undeniably appealing, especially since at that time, I did not know how my parents would be able to afford the expenses of medical school with my four other siblings still in elementary and high school. I was about to give up on my dream of becoming a doctor; this might just be the answer I was looking for.
Unfortunately though, I knew of no one who could give me details on how to apply for INTARMED. I was only beginning to use the Internet. We did not even have our own computer at home. And even if we did, I doubt if I would have found enough relevant information online. It did not help that people kept saying INTERMED, which was what I used to search for information, and naturally ended up with nothing.
My high school principal told me that the class valedictorian five years earlier was accepted into the program. He was the first one to do so from my high school, but only after getting waitlisted and subsequently recalled after one of the accepted applicants backed out. Not reassuring news, either.
It was thus with blind enthusiasm that I answered YES to the question “Are you also interested in entering an accelerated program leading to medicine?” on my UPCAT application form.
“Malay mo, makapasa,” I said to myself.
My UPCAT exam in August was uneventful. Being a veteran of high school competitions in math, science, and English, I was able to answer most questions with confidence. At the end of the morning, my only worry was that my Oreo cookies left dark smudges on my answer sheet, unrelenting to my exam-grade eraser no matter how furiously I rubbed.
Hence, when the UPCAT results were released in February 2001, I was silently disappointed to find out that yes, I passed, but across my name it clearly said College of Science and not College of Medicine. I had put B.S. Chemistry (UP Diliman) on my UPCAT application as my first choice course and that was obviously where I got accepted.
Just a week earlier, I received a congratulatory letter from De La Salle University stating that I had been chosen as a Star Scholar for being among its top incoming freshmen. I now faced the choice between being an ordinary Maroon or a Star Scholar Green Archer.
What I did not know then was that UPCAT score was not the sole basis for getting into INTARMED. Among all those who indicated YES to the INTARMED question in the UPCAT form, the top 50 male and top 50 female applicants are notified and called in for a panel interview, after which, the top 40 students are chosen for the seven-year medicine program. It was an annual battle of Promil kids from all over the country, to say the least.
These things I only found out two Saturdays after the UPCAT results were released. I was getting ready for the regional finals of a math contest when a competitor from a Chinese school approached me to show a piece of paper with my name highlighted on it.
“Congratulations,” she said.
I stood there frozen, and she was smiling.
“I’m glad to be the bearer of good news.”
Heart pounding and tears welling in my eyes, I called my parents to tell them that from the 65,000 students who took the UPCAT, I was among the top 50. I would begin college as an Oblation Scholar, which meant free tuition and a monthly stipend. More important, I also made it to the INTARMED shortlist.
During the interview, an otorhinolaryngologist and a pediatric neurologist asked questions one after the other in the UPCM dean’s office.
What are your hobbies? Have you ever cheated? Are you loyal? What are your study habits? Who is your inspiration? Do you have a girlfriend? What was the worst rumor spread about you? Why do you want to go into medicine?
Seventy valedictorians, salutatorians, and honorable mentions turned up for the interview. I had a 1 in 2 chance of getting accepted.
The excitement and anxiety of realizing a dream blurred all events afterward. I graduated class valedictorian. My mother made her historic call. I received Dean Ramon Arcadio’s acceptance letter, and three months later, stood in front of Lady Med (the statue replica of Jose Rizal’s Triumph of Science over Death at the UPCM garden), beaming as Iskolar ng Bayan class number 2001-09985. I could not believe that it was actually my name on that white blackboard in Calderon Hall.
That was the beginning of this INTAR-kid, and the many, many wonderful things that would come after.