The irony is that everything happened in front of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, a 200-meter sprint from the Department of Justice building. I had just attended a mentor’s Christmas party and was walking home just outside the hospital where I had spent almost a third of my life training to become a physician. Looking back, the street was well lit even though it was quarter past midnight. However, the traffic light along Taft Avenue was on green, hence the few jeepneys cruising Padre Faura at that time were stuck on the other side of the intersection. The iPod, long-sleeve polo and jeans didn’t help; I resembled a wandering, inebriated Japanese on his way to get a taste of Manila’s nightlife.
He was walking in the opposite direction. Before I realized his motive, he rushed towards me, grabbed my upper body and declared, “Holdap ‘to!”
“Shit,” I remember
“Akin na ang cell phone at wallet mo!”
Being the mathematician that I am, my usual instinct when faced with crucial, life-altering decisions is to make quick mental calculations.
And thus, helpless and alone in the dead of the night, overpowered by an evil force admittedly stronger than my geek self, I began to compute.
My wallet contained Php 2000, USD 10, two ATM cards, and three IDs. I had been contemplating on buying a new cellular phone to replace my Nokia 6230, with a then market value of probably less than Php 4000. My body weight multiplied by two equaled his body weight. The probability of initiating a successful counter-attack was close to zero.
In the end, the decision was easy: Hindi ako pinag-aral nang pitong taon sa UP ng Nanay at Tatay ko, para lang maging headline ng tabloid. (“Bagong gradweyt na doktor, todas sa holdap”)
I gave him my cell phone, which he took with his right hand, and then handed him my wallet, which he took with the other. Perfect. His both upper limbs now preoccupied, I escaped from his deadly embrace and ran.
Did he have a gun? Did he have a knife? I did not know. I did not want to know. All I knew was that I needed to get away from him as soon as I could. As a medical clerk and intern, I had heard of and seen too many victims who were shot or stabbed, even after they had surrendered their valuables to their hold-uppers. (The intent is to disable the victim, who may be able to call the attention of people around the area, making the getaway more difficult for the robber.)
I could hear him shout, “Sige, takbo pa! Bilisan mo! Umalis ka na dito!” His voice gradually faded, progressively drowned by the thumping of my heart and the growing distance between us.
When I finally reached the place where I stayed, I realized I was trembling. I couldn’t even insert my key into the door knob, dropping my key chain on the doorstep in my first attempt. After the realization of what had just occurred set in (“Shit, naholdap talaga ako.”), I made three phone calls: the first two to the banks to cancel my ATMs, and the last one home to tell my parents what had happened. I found out that the robber attempted to extract my ATM PIN from my parents, even saying that he only held me up because he needed to buy a nebulizer for his allegedly sick child. What a scumbag.
My parents were just relieved to find out I was unhurt. I was satisfied knowing that I made the right decision. I was alive.
The incident made me realize that as a medical student and as a physician, some things have become non-negotiable. There are risks just not worth taking. I could have fought back and escaped. I could have asked for my SIM card. I could have shouted for help. But who knew what my captor could have done to me in those extra minutes? I was being a wimp, but there was just too much at stake — my medical education and my future career being the most important. To lose it all for a wallet and a cell phone?
Similarly, I have long abandoned handling of firecrackers. As a teenager, I used to join my cousins in lighting and setting firecrackers airborne with wanton exhilaration, using our bare hands. Now I don’t even go outside during New Year’s Eve, content to watch the festivities from inside our home, ten operating fingers intact.
I will never drive a motorcycle.
I only cross the street when the traffic light is red and after all vehicles in sight have made a complete stop. Especially in Taft Avenue.
Having been diagnosed with hypertension, I take my two medications religiously, missing a dose only rarely, usually when I am stuck in the operating room. I would not want to suffer from a debilitating stroke or a ruptured aneurysm at the peak of my career.
Most probably, this instinct for self-preservation had already been present for a long time. The only difference is that after I was held up, it became a conscious effort. How would I be able to help my patients if, after all the hard work, I end up being a crippled neurosurgeon?
We, doctors and medical students, owe it to our patients to keep ourselves healthy and safe. Who would want to go to a cardiologist who needs angioplasty? To a smoker pulmonologist? To a surgeon with amputated fingers? To a drug addict psychiatrist? To an obese nutritionist?
As a celebrity once said in his famous drug commercial: “Ingat.”
And we should, always.