Ronibats.PH Stories of a Filipino neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer

The Neurosurgeon and the Writer

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In 2019, I became a fellow of the 58th University of the Philippines National Writers Workshop. To apply for the workshop, I had to submit an essay explaining who I am, what I write, and why I write. This was my poetics essay.

The neurosurgeon’s complete title, with all the honorifics, is Ronnie E. Baticulon, MD, FAFN, associate professor and pediatric neurosurgeon. The trailing letters and words represent seven years of the INTARMED curriculum (an accelerated program that the University of the Philippines College of Medicine offers to 40 students from high school each year), five years of neurosurgery training in Manila, two elective months in New York and Helsinki, a year of pediatric neurosurgery fellowship in Melbourne, six weeks of further training in Mbale, and two grueling certifying examinations, not counting the UPCAT. That’s fifteen years of training and five continents in total, and it’s not even finished yet for Dr. Baticulon, who has committed himself to lifelong learning.

The writer is known online as Ronibats, a name he started using in high school because there were two Ronnies in class, the other one was Ronnie Roy, and he didn’t have a second name to go with his Ronnie, so he just used a diminutive of his last name. In college, his best friend shortened Ronnie Bats further to its current form. Should he be given a chance to participate in the national writers workshop, the name Ron would suffice and be absolutely fine. No need for Dr., and he would refuse to acknowledge any conversation that begins with Dokie. 

He is also a teacher, but to keep things simple, the teacher will sit out this conversation.

Unlike the neurosurgeon, the writer’s formal education could be summarized in a sentence fragment: the required subjects Komunikasyon I, Komunikasyon II, and Humanidades 103, and a week in the University of Santo Tomas National Writers Workshop during the medical student’s internship year in 2007. To get to where he is now, the writer has relied mainly on books that the neurosurgeon would give him time to read.    

The neurosurgeon could not be more different from the writer.

It irks the neurosurgeon when the writer scribbles dialogues and narratives on prescription pads, but the writer doesn’t mind when the neurosurgeon uses pages and pages of the Moleskine notebook that is normally reserved for plots and descriptions, but in desperate times, becomes a scratch paper for clinical examination findings and laboratory results.

In the clinic, the neurosurgeon is interested mainly in the patient’s level of consciousness, the size of the brain tumor, and how soon the family would want the operation. It is the writer who asks about what the patient does for fun, whether the patient is Kapuso or Kapamilya, and who’s taking care of the children. Or the dog.

The MacBook Pro is godsend to the neurosurgeon, who needs to annotate and summarize hundreds of journals to come up with a decent research paper that could be published in a reputable international journal. There’s nothing more intimidating to the writer than an empty Word document and a blinking cursor. Hence, the Moleskine and boxes of contrastingly cheap MyGel 0.7 blue pen. It must be said, though, that both prefer to write at 3 or 4 am, when thoughts are clearest, and it is too late to go back to bed.

Once, in a moment of exasperation in the operating room, the neurosurgeon was heard saying, “I have a patient who is exsanguinating right now on the table, and you want to ponder on the meaning of his life?”

The writer simply said, “Yes. Kailan pa?”

“Can’t we save the patient first?”

In truth, one would not exist without the other.

The neurosurgeon is terse, objective, and deliberate, traits that often spill into the writer’s narratives. The writer takes time, dreams in Technicolor, wanders aimlessly, and thinks that the neurosurgeon needs to do the same more often.

Both have a keen attention to detail, necessary to save lives for the neurosurgeon, necessary to keep life worth living for the writer. Both know the value of failure, resilient in their own ways.

Working in Philippine General Hospital has given the neurosurgeon an acute understanding of how life is short and long at the same time, how every snapshot of our existence acquires a different meaning depending on whose perspective you take. Whenever the doctor could not understand the futility of hard work, the vacuum of loss, the suddenness of death, the necessity of suffering, and the uncertainty of human relationships, it was the writer who put down these incoherent thoughts and transformed them into eloquent words, so that the doctor may look at them again later, when the emotions have subsided, and reflect: 

Am I a good person?

The writer’s first book was written to inspire. These are stories within stories of a life guided by dreams, driven by sheer perseverance, and filled with happy coincidences. It is becoming harder and harder to choose to become a Filipino doctor, and even more difficult to choose to be a doctor in the Philippines. The neurosurgeon has always felt that he has been given much more than what he deserves. The book was a means to express gratitude, and more important, to pay it forward. The length of most of the essays reflects the time available to a medical student and a neurosurgeon in training, but the writer hopes the message of unconditional kindness and commitment to excellence is not diminished.

It has been a good year for the writer. A book deal and a Palanca award ten years after obtaining the license to practice as a physician––he might have come the long way round, but here he is, talking about the prospect of a second book.  

No more white coats, this time. The writer imagines a more cohesive collection: fewer essays, but greater in scope and magnitude, to explore topics and ideas beyond the confines of the operating room in order to reach a wider audience. The difference is that now, he has more control over the number of hours he can spend writing on his notebooks without guilt, and he no longer feels constrained by the 500-word attention span of the default Facebook or Twitter user. Nevertheless, it is still the neurosurgeon’s insights and experiences in the book that will force the reader to confront the question:

Have I lived a meaningful life?

For what is writing but an attempt to make sense of our every day.

This comes at a time when the neurosurgeon, a first-generation doctor, is on an uphill climb to establish his reputation. He is at a critical stage in his career when he needs to be visible and always available, so that his colleagues would know that he could be trusted to take good care of their patients. Time spent writing is time spent away from the clinic and the operating room. It is, after all, the neurosurgeon who has to go back to the hospital in the middle of the night to perform emergency surgery––his hard work that equates to economic returns, which in turn give the writer the privilege and the luxury of self-imposed free days for his literary pursuits.

But surgery, like writing, is a skill, perfected only with years of deliberate practice and meticulous retrospection. And so, despite the hesitation, the neurosurgeon understands why the writer, who has taken the backseat all these years, would want to subject himself to structured learning and constructive criticism from mentors and peers. Writing his first book was trial and error at worst, intuitive at best. How does he move forward to create a significant and lasting contribution to Philippine literature?

The writer needs this workshop.

Please say yes before the neurosurgeon changes his mind.

Read more about the 58th UPNWW on the workshop’s official blog. #58UPNWW #UPNWW2019

About the author

Ron Baticulon

Ronibats is a pediatric neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer. In 2018, he won a Palanca award for the title essay of his upcoming book, "Some Days You Can't Save Them All" (UP Press, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter @ronibats.

3 comments

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  • Glad to have found this blog, Doc. This entry alone makes me buy your book outright. Will binge-read the rest of the entries. The conversation between the neurosurgeon and the writer reminds me of: Ricky Lee’s Para Kay B, Six Characters in search of an Author, Paul Kalanithi and Oliver Sacks, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Love the writing!

  • I feel like crying every time I read your words. I feel more sure also that I’ll take med despite opinions saying otherwise. Thank you Doc Ron.

Ronibats.PH Stories of a Filipino neurosurgeon, teacher, and writer

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