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. I can sit at ease on the teacher’s desk, legs dangling, 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.