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Now, there’s just the impulse to say “Twenty-three” before it is, just as immediately, superseded by self-restraint: Teka, ilang taon na nga ‘ko?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