Alternate Realities

I have just spent 12 hours teaching two classes, on a post-duty Sunday. The schedule was insane: allotting only an hour to take a bath, have a quick breakfast, and travel from the hospital to the classroom; and another hour to rest, eat lunch/dinner, and travel from one teaching venue to the next. My emergency room duty yesterday was no respite either; I have had to admit seven patients, two of whom eventually died because of the severity of their brain hemorrhages. I have been awake for almost 40 hours, but I do not feel tired. Not at all.

Instead, I am filled with a great sense of accomplishment. Amidst the hectic schedule of a neurosurgery resident, I had been at the right place, at the right time, doing something that felt right in every way. Somehow, I always knew, I was meant to be a teacher.

Fulfillment from an operation well done comes at least a day or two later. It may even take weeks, sometimes. No matter how adroit a surgeon may be in the operating room, the measure of success is the outcome of the patient after the operation. Even if every step of the surgery is faultless, you only find out whether you have truly helped a patient on the day you send your patient home, improved and feeling much better than before you operated.

The same cannot be said for teaching. Explaining a difficult concept in front of a class, I get an immediate sense of gratification when I see how puzzled faces gradually evolve into that of amazement, and then, finally, into understanding. The verbal and non-verbal reactions that express the equivalent of “Ah! ‘Yun lang pala ‘yun!” and “Oo nga ano, ang galing!” are priceless. It is the widening of the eyes and the unconscious grin of students which reinforce the conviction that, perhaps, I am doing something right.

I have been teaching from as far back as my elementary and high school years. I used to teach schoolmates after class hours or during recess whenever they had difficulties in mathematics. I never let anyone copy my answers during exams, so I offered to teach them instead.

In college, I volunteered to teach Math 11/14/17 (Algebra and Trigonometry) and Chem 31 (Organic Chemistry) at the Learning Resource Center of UP Manila so that I could use their Internet whenever I needed. As a medical student, I tutored high school students to earn money for the purchase of books, medical or otherwise.  It only seemed natural that after passing the physician licensure exam, I opted to work as a teacher, rather than moonlight and go on 24-hour duty in hospitals within or immediately surrounding Metro Manila.

That being said, this is my third year of teaching as a professional. It is a shame that the teaching opportunity is now limited to my semi-monthly lecture to the interns rotating in the Section of Neurosurgery and to the infrequent Medicine board review lectures I could legally fit into my schedule.

Teaching has become a reprieve. Whereas the operating room has always been stifling, with rules on sterility and decorum that must be obeyed and respected without exception, I have discovered that I have become comfortable speaking in front of a class, be it a group of ten students or a batch of three hundred.

The classroom is my playground. Legs dangling, I can sit at ease on the teacher’s desk while I demystify the electron transport chain. I can be the TV show host who asks for volunteers to portray roles that illustrate the effects of inhibitors on enzyme kinetics. I am the storyteller who reveals the sacrifices of Mr. Liver for Ms. Muscle. And to my amazement, I surprise even myself when I get to crack jokes or demonstrate mnemonics that lead to an eruption of laughter in the classroom.

In the same way that a surgeon is indifferent to the passing of time during the conduct of an intense operation, I often fail to realize the number of hours I have been speaking to my students. I am not immune to drooping eyelids, bobbing heads, and dropping pens, but I realize that a few good listeners from all corners of the classroom provides all the adrenaline I need to keep going.

The opportunity to share knowledge and to provoke the curiosity of medical students will always be one of the reasons why, despite the perpetual duty schedule, I enjoy training in a government hospital. As a surgeon, I try to save lives one patient at a time. As a teacher, multiply that ten-fold, or a hundred-fold, by virtue of my students who will be saving other lives in their own time.

I have found my comfort zone in teaching. I feel relaxed. I get excited. I am happy I am a teacher.

Forty years from now, when my vision blurs and my fingers shake — too tired, too old to operate — you will find me in the classroom. Smiling.

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13 comments

  1. Inspired writing, as always. 🙂

  2. Still brilliant. Great to see that you’re still writing.

  3. “A teacher affects eternity. No one can tell where his influence stops.” -Henry Adams

  4. Every time you speak of teaching your face lights up and you break into a smile with a wattage that could probably power up an entire city (literally glowing,swear!) There was a time you said, and I quote from what I remember, “Hindi bale na hindi ako maalala na isang magaling na neurosurgeon basta maalala lang ako na isang magaling na teacher.” You are brilliant in being both, and I believe that as long as you keep doing the things you are passionate about, people will always remember. Keep it up!

  5. The Philippines needs more people like you. 🙂 The words above emanate passion.

  6. dr. ronbats – your soul is so rich it beautifully clothes your skills!

  7. whatagrandday

    Good day, sir! I would just like to say thank you for being such an inspiration. Your lifestory is kind of similar to mine (minus the accolades). I too belong to a large family (albeit larger, I have 8 siblings). And during the time I went to college in UPM, all of us are in school. I dreamt of being a doctor since childhood. But with the uncertainty of whether my parents can send me to med school or not, I did not really exert a whole. lot of effort during my undergraduate days. I was afraid that if I poured my heart and soul to something, then later on be disheartened by reality, I would lose it. I daresay, I had been a mediocre student. I didn’t flunk any subjects (because repeating any would mean additional expense) but I wasn’t exceptional either. I was just right smack at the middle. That was such a self-defeatist attitude, I reckon. As fate would have it, during my senior year, my mother had a change of career that meant they can send me to school. With my lackluster grades, I wasn’t able to enter UPCM. I managed to just be considered until the first list. I however enrolled to another med school, less decorated than PGH but stellar nonetheless. Now, I’m about to get my Doctor of Medicine degree, and soon start my internship in weeks time.

    I read all your blog entries after a former classmate posted a link in his facebook wall. I find it apt to post a comment in this entry since among all that you are, it is your being an educator that would resonate most in this world. I haven’t met you personally or heard you speak but reading your prose taught be invaluable lessons. Kudos! More

  8. Dear Ronnie,

    Hi and how are you? I revisited your blog on the account of your recent entry published in Inquirer, which reminded me of an incident in high school when the class was “shamefully” scolded by the Prefect of Discipline for, if I’m not mistaken – as we were most defiantly unaware, allegedly bullying the (allegedly) teacher’s pet (who transferred to another school after one year). Then for many years, it made for a nasty inside joke to use “Shame on you!” as a retort in class. Although, that shame might have been undeservedly applied to an entire body of pre-pubescent students, who is to say that those of us who did not participate in the bullying could not have done our best to prevent it? Perhaps that incident now gains significance as an analogy to the sense of “shame” being slung to our government, especially to our legislators, no matter the appeal against collective labeling, for in Edmund Burke’s words, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” which most rest assuredly cannot apply to you in the practice of your vocation.

    On a different note, I am happy to read about the fulfilment you derive from teaching so let me share with you an important memory. I have always struggled to appreciate more complicated mathematical concepts but you, with your uncanny gift of clear logic and language, back in 2nd year high school charitably tutored us with a lesson in Algebra that “is” means “equals to,” and that may seem trivial now but I never forgot the lesson. I thought then that you could have easily replaced some of our teachers (with all due respect to their pedagogic, not to mention motivational, capabilities).

    As a friend, I merely hope to remind you to take good care of your health. Your generosity of spirit is an inspiration to many and to myself most definitely including.

  9. my daily prayers are said for you. may your tribe increase.

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Names, dates, and events may have been changed to protect the identity of patients. The stories are not meant to provide medical advice for specific illnesses. The author neither accepts online consults nor gives medical advice online. Please consult your trusted physician.