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

I Am Twenty-Three


Lately, I have been having a hard time remembering how old I am. When filling out forms or talking to customer service personnel, there’s an inevitable six-second lag before I figure out the answer. I even have to make a quick calculation in my head sometimes. I find this unusual because as a child and a teenager, I always knew my age. You could ask for it while I’m in the middle of a book, in front of the computer screen, or watching TV, and I would instantaneously blurt out the answer. Five. Twelve. Seventeen.

Now, there’s just the impulse to say “Twenty-three” before it is, just as immediately, superseded by self-restraint: Teka, ilang taon na nga ‘ko?

The problem is that when I see my classmates who are now Surgery vice chiefs or Medicine and Pedia service seniors or Anesthesiology team captains (and thus I am reminded that I’m already a Neurosurgery resident), I fail to see us beyond the medical clerks and interns we once were. That was the time when we regarded our residents highly, putting them on the pedestal for knowing so much and being able to do much more as government physicians. Now, we have taken their positions, and it seems nothing has changed when everything has. Or perhaps this is just me, refusing to grow up beyond the age I graduated from medical school.

I do not have a choice, though.

A few weeks back, I had a lengthy conversation with a friend whose mother was admitted for cancer surgery. He has been working for a multinational company with 16-hour workdays, five days a week. A consistent honor student and achiever himself, his is the life that could have been mine if I were in the corporate world rather than in the Philippine health care system.

It was the night before his mother’s surgery, and since he had little time to discuss the details of the planned operation with their surgeon during clinic visits, I took the liberty of explaining to him what to expect and when.

I told him that his mother would be transported out of the operating room with different tubes connected to her body: one inserted into the nose for feeding, one or two from her surgical site to drain out excess blood, and possibly one into her airway should the anesthesiologist feel uncomfortable letting her breathe on her own.

She would have to stay in the hospital for at most two weeks — just enough time to address early complications. Afterwards, they could take care of her at home so that she would not be unduly exposed to hospital bacteria and be put at risk for acquiring an infection.

He then divulged that the family had a hard time convincing their mother to proceed with the operation. It was risky and debilitating, but it had to be done because the alternative is certain death. There might be no symptoms now, but when the tumor progresses — and it would — the pain would come. And with it, much suffering.

“Ready na ang Mom mo?”

“Sana. Mukha naman.”

“Eh ikaw, ayos ka lang?” I asked, knowing that he had become the surrogate decision maker and financer of the family.

“I guess so,” he said with a shrug.

“You do know she could die from the surgery…”

“But I cannot bear to take the ‘Do nothing and hope for a miracle’ approach.”

Indeed. Even if it were my mother, I would have pushed for an operation. When cancer creeps into a family, you want to take it all out in one strike. You want the best possible option in the soonest possible time to get the highest chances of survival. And even when your doctor says that it’s been cured, you cannot let your guard down. Else, it will slowly sneak back in, eating away your loved one day by day without your knowing.

“Buti na lang nakausap kita,” he said. “Kasi sa office, pare-pareho lang kami ng alam.”

“No problem,” I said. It was the least I could do, his mother being my mother’s friend, as well.

It occurred to me then that my friend and I could have had a similar conversation 10 years back, except we would have been talking about contests and medals, and my words would not have had the same gravity that they do now. I was talking to him as a person of authority, and I realized how big a responsibility this entailed. I was giving medical advice and he was listening, believing my every word. I am used to talking and explaining to relatives and caretakers of patients, but that’s different, because these people have always known me as their doctor. My friend was someone who knew me as a wide-eyed student, who once dreamt of being a Nobel prize winner. There was no denying — I have grown up.

We talked some more, comparing our lifestyles with each other. He shared how he is never around the house for dinner, how his last relationship went bad because of time commitment, and how he missed important occasions because he had to do overtime work. In my parallel life, I probably would have fared the same.

I told him that I envied how he has been able to travel to different countries and how he has been able to buy a house and a car for his family with the income he was earning. He was quick to put things into perspective, though.

“Eh ano ngayon kung ma-delay ang pag-launch ng isang sabon?” he said. “And I don’t get any gratitude from my work as an auditor. When I do my job well, people get sacked. You don’t get gratitude from that.”

And I remembered the t-shirt, can of broas, can of apas, bottle of perfume, occasional chocolates, and countless boxes of buko pies that I’ve received from our poor but always thankful patients.

“Ikakasal na pala si M (a mutual acquaintance). Ang aga ‘no?”

“No, they’re marrying at the right age,” I corrected him.

And we both laughed.

The next morning, I went to work early and dropped by his mother’s room.

“Ready na po kayo?” I asked as I held her hands.

She smiled.

“Sige po, lakasan niyo lang po ang loob ha? Dadaanan ko na lang po kayo pagkatapos ng operasyon,” I promised.

I left the room, feeling twenty-three but suddenly ten years older.

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 first book, "Some Days You Can't Save Them All," published by The University of the Philippines Press. You can follow him on Twitter @ronibats.


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  • Sir, oks to. napag-isipan ko na rin tong lagi ko ngang nakakalimutan yung age ko in comparison nung teenager ako. Siguro dahil dati gusto mong tumanda… you always look up to adults ngayong matanda ka na parang wala lang. Lahat ng adult ay adult.

    Parang dati sir first year undergrad lang ako tapos kayo e imed nun. Bago pa ang blogging nun. Hehe! Ang bilis ng panahon. 😉

  • Me, too! I keep forgetting my age. It takes a few seconds sometimes to give out the right answer. I think it’s because I didn’t leave the academe until I was 28. Right now, I feel 28 and working with people in their early 20’s. It is only in moments when I am beset with hard decisions that I realize…I’m actually 35 and ought to know better what to do and say.

    But then again, age is just a number. It does not determine how mature/adult your views and decisions can be.

  • Hi, I’m also from perps hs, you were 4th yr and i was in 1st year. Now I am a registered nurse and ganyan din ang feeling, lalo na pag nagkita kita na kami ng mga hs classmates ko. They would also ask me questions too. Pag tinatanong ako, napapaisip ako, anything that comes out of my mouth ay paniniwalaan nila because of the license I carry. I feel like ang bata ko pa to give my insights and napakaling responsibility if ever I say something na baka mali pa la. 🙂

  • Kuya Ron, as always, this is very heartwarming. I think I know “your friend”. The news made me sad as well. If my guess is right, I also had a conversation with his sister regarding this. And we were both laughing and crying all throughout.

  • 23?! And here I am complaining life being difficult and meaningless and whatnot at 22. I feel morally deranged and inferior. It is beyond dispute that one can learn so much regardless of age. With experience comes wisdom. Your words can light up the dampest wick in the squalliest twilight of this existence. You, sir, are almost impeccable.

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