This is the beginning of the end.
2014 is the year I expect to finish training as a neurosurgeon. Except for 2009, when I taught in medical school and practiced general medicine, I have spent most of my waking hours from June 2001 until today in this government-run university-hospital complex. That is 12 of the last 13 years.
Truth be told, I feel that I have put on twice the actual number of years since I started. The first year INTARMED student would only recognize fundamental fragments of his self in the senior neurosurgery resident. The former would say, with genuine amazement, “Wow, kaya mo talaga mag-opera ng utak ng tao?” (Wow, can you really do surgery on the human brain?)
To which the latter would reply, simply, “Oo. Makakaya mo. Astig ‘di ba?” (Yes. You will be able to. Sounds amazing, right?)
The good is that not many people under 30 can declare with absolute certainty that they have saved lives. Snatched children and adults alike from the claws of Death if one wanted to be more emphatic.
The bad is that I have become less tolerant of other people’s shortcomings, and generally impatient at most things — whether it is in the bringing of a patient to the operating room for emergency surgery, or waiting to be served breakfast in a fast food restaurant. There is now a conscious effort to keep myself from walking, thinking, and talking too fast when I am outside of the hospital.
I write this post on my pocket notebook using my trademark blue pen, 35,000 feet above sea level, on my flight home from a five-day course in pediatric neurosurgery in Singapore. Although airline regulations now allow in-flight use of electronic devices, my iPad sleeps quietly in my carry-on bag. Not every thing has to change.
I try to think clearly, amidst the tattle of the flight attendants peddling snacks and duty-free merchandise in the aisle, and the subdued, continuous drone of the plane’s engines. When I look through the window to my right, I see the slow, steady retreat of innumerable cirrus clouds and immediately, I am overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude: this was my fourth international trip, and every single one of them had been all-expense paid. The first trip was funded by my paternal relatives in New York City, and the last three, by generous donors, institutions, and foundations.
When I was a child, my constant kalaro/kakampi/kaaway (playmate/teammate/opponent) was a cousin who was one year younger and who went to the same school as I did.
He always wanted to be Red One/Red Mask/Mario so I settled for Green Two/Blue Mask/Luigi. He owned the more expensive toys, most of which he willingly lent to me. He always talked about the mole on his foot, which back then he said, signified two things: he was a born runner – true enough, I always lost to him during habulan (running game) – and he was meant to travel abroad.
He migrated to the United States when he was 8.
After giving him a goodbye embrace, as I stood on the front door and watched him and his favorite Snoopy stuffed toy get on the car that would take them to the airport, I thought, “Kailan kaya ako makakapunta sa States?” (When would I be able to to the States?)
“Huwag kang mag-alala,” the senior neurosurgery resident would have said, ruffling the child’s hair which always resembled a coconut husk, “Balang araw, makakapunta ka rin doon, at sa marami pang lugar.” (Don’t worry. One day, you would be able to go there, and to many other places.)
The latter’s chinky eyes would widen, brimming with hope and dreams, and the former would give him two gentle pats on the shoulder, as if saying, “Galingan mo ha?” (Do your best, OK?)
The boy would grow up to be a mathematician, writer, public speaker, class valedictorian, medical student, physician, teacher, and in another year’s time, neurosurgeon. It would cost him a centimeter of his hairline and dark circles under his eyes, among other things.
But I have no right to complain.
In the beginning of any major undertaking, one always asks, “Is this really what I want?” One looks for certainty before taking the big leap forward. Certainty may come gradually. To some, never at all until the very end.
And that is when the question shifts to, “Was it worth it?” One looks back to scrutinize anything and everything from the moment the decision was made until present time, trying to counter balance every bad thing with the good, every disappointment with exhilaration, and every failure with success. They don’t always measure up, do they?
Just before I left Singapore, I had a chance to visit two of its zoos. As I stood in the amphitheater where guests could see Singapore Zoo’s resident polar bear Inuka through a thick glass wall, I didn’t know which amazed me more: that I was seeing, for the first time, an actual polar bear swimming in circles in ice cold water, or that I did not have to do anything at that moment — no phone calls or text messages, no patients to worry about — except appreciate the serene, gentle movements of the arctic animal.
A five-year-old boy with chinky eyes and hairstyle resembling a coconut husk would have tugged the lower end of the neurosurgery resident’s short-sleeved polo and said, “Para ka namang nagfi-field trip. Ang tanda-tanda mo na. Wala ka bang kailangan gawin?” (It’s as if you are on a field trip. But you are too old for that. Don’t you have anything to do?)
With a grin.
“Saan ka pupunta pagkatapos?” (Where will you go next?)
“Hindi ko pa alam. Bahala na.” (I am not sure. We’ll see.)
And that is the truth. When this airplane lands, I have 354 days to plan how to move forward. This year is going to be awesome.