Every morning I would see Eric combing Ofelia’s hair with utmost diligence and meticulousness, it would put to shame shampoo commercial models who comb their tresses on national TV. His palms were coarse and the fingers stubby–toughened by years of manual labor in an automobile repair shop and occasional side jobs in construction projects here and there–but the hands moved deftly through the hair strands that reached his wife’s shoulder blades, one would think that the hands were made solely for this daily ritual.
It was not merely a habit, however. It had a purpose. At the end of his task, Ofelia’s hair was clean and fresh, tempting to touch and not a strand out of place. Always, I could smell its floral scent from the next bed.
Eric took his wife to our hospital because of right-sided weakness and inability to speak. Imaging showed a suspicious mass on the left side of her brain. The admitting impression of the Neurosurgery service was a hemorrhagic brain tumor, and the only way to confirm our assessment was to operate and take out the mass, whatever it was.
Because the suspicious lesion was on the frontal part of the head, I would have ordinarily shaved all hair that was anterior to both ears. If the patient were willing to go bald, I would even offer to shave all hair so that post-operative wound care would be more convenient for family members, and the patient’s hair strands would all grow at the same time, avoiding the unsightly, uneven patch on the scalp. From a neurosurgeon’s standpoint, clipping hair would minimize the risk of post-operative infection due to bacteria adherent to hair at the time of surgery.
But no matter how hard I tried to convince Eric, he would not want Ofelia’s hair shaved.
“Kung maaari lang po Dok, huwag niyo po siyang kalbuhin.”
It was a week before Ofelia’s surgery. I had reviewed her MRI films and presented the operative plan to Eric: what to expect before, during, and immediately after the operation. The patient being unable to speak, all decision-making was left to her husband.
“Sige po, Tay. Hindi ko na lang po siya kakalbuhin.”
It was a request for a loved one who could be dying. I just had to concede.
I would only shave a strip of hair one centimeter wide, corresponding to the intended skin incision. There had to be a compromise.
“Ano po ‘yun Dok?”
“Ang usapan natin, para maiwasan ang impeksyon, kailangan mong shampoo-hin araw-araw ang buhok ng asawa mo bago tayo mag-opera, ha?”
“Sige po, Dok. Makakaasa po kayo.”
These were the exact words he said when I first talked to him in the emergency room, after I explained the need to prepare money and four units of blood so that Ofelia could be operated on in the soonest possible time. There were neither excuses nor apologies, only a sincere promise to fulfill his duty.
True to his word, he did just that, and much more. Every day, during morning rounds in the ward, Eric’s wife looked fairest of them all.
Ofelia had been working as a domestic helper abroad and was only in the country for a short vacation when she suddenly developed her symptoms. She was fortunate to have found kind employers. After working for them for five years in Saudi Arabia, she moved to Singapore, by request, when her employees migrated two years ago.
She and Eric had a 15-year-old daughter who was in fourth year high school. When the employers found out about her illness, they sent money to pay for hospital expenses and the rest of her daughter’s tuition this year.
“Hindi ko pa po nakikita ang anak ninyo, Tay.”
“Nag-to-top kasi siya sa klase niya Dok, kaya ayaw umabsent.”
With pride, he shared his daughter’s academic achievements. She was scheduled to take her college entrance examinations in a week. I was surprised to find out that she lived with paternal relatives in the province while Eric tried to earn money in the city. Coming from a closely knit family of seven, I could only imagine the shared loneliness of a family of three living far apart from one another. Was it really necessary?
“Saka na lang kami magsasama-sama Dok, kapag for good na siya (referring to Ofelia) dito.”
That was the plan, until of course Ofelia’s illness. If indeed she had brain cancer, it would mean a median survival of only a little over a year, even with subsequent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Seeing the wistful look on Eric’s face, I was reminded that in truth, the paramount aspiration of the typical Filipino family is quite simple: to live together in comfort.
“Ano bang tawag mo sa kanya, Tay?”
I wanted to find out her nickname so that I would know how to call her when I and the anesthesiologists try to wake her up after her operation.
Ofelia smiled, surprising both Eric and me. If she were not sick, she would have laughed. I could not say, “Sweetheart, buksan mo na ang mga mata mo…” in the OR, could I?
At that point, I remember wishing that our assessment was incorrect, so that Ofelia would live to see her daughter graduate, and so that she could spend more time with her husband, who loved her no doubt he was willing to do everything, even comb her hair when her own hand could no longer do it. Admittedly, I felt both admiration and envy.
With the full support of her husband, Ofelia’s surgery proceeded as planned and without any complications. I had become used to seeing Eric greeting me in the morning with a comb in his hand, until they were discharged a week later.
When I saw Ofelia at the outpatient clinic after a month, she could already speak in phrases, and raise her right arm and leg against gravity. With continued rehabilitation, it would not be long before she could regain the ability to walk. Her long hair was radiant as ever, concealing the scalp incision that was only noticeable if one looked hard enough.
“Dok, eto na po ‘yung result ng biopsy,” Eric said as he handed to me the final report.
I read the pathologist’s diagnosis with surprise and satisfaction: it was benign.
I could not be any happier to be wrong.