Earlier today, I saw two of my brain tumor patients follow up in the Neurosurgery outpatient clinic. While both have made good recovery from their operations, their families’ worst fears had just been realized with the piece of paper that they brought with them, bearing the official pathology report stating that the tumor removed from the patient–as suspected from the start–was brain cancer.
In medical school, the pun I would hear most often when friends find out that I was interested in Neurosurgery was, “Vegetarian ka ba?” Used to the punch line that would come after (“Kasi lahat ng pasyente mo, gulay!” or any of its variations), I would just grin in response, without ever feeling the need to justify my career choice.
The joy of seeing your post-operative patients follow up in the outpatient clinic, feeling much better than before you operated on them, could not outweigh the helplessness you feel whenever you tell the many others waiting in line for their surgery, “Pasensya na po, wala pa po kaming bakanteng kama. Hindi pa po namin kayo maooperahan. Bumalik na lang po kayo pagkatapos ng dalawang linggo kung hindi pa rin po namin kayo tinatawagan.” (I am sorry but we still do not have a hospital bed for you. We cannot schedule your operation yet. Please come back after two weeks if we have not called you by then.)
“Bats, tinawagan ako ng Student Affairs. Mag-submit lang daw ako ng requirements.”
“Ha? Bakit ako hindi tinawagan? Paano nangyari ‘yun?”
I was talking to A, my classmate in the INTARMED program. It was the first month of our first semester and we were on our way home. From UP Manila, we took the same bus, his stop 30 minutes before mine (or 60 minutes during Friday night rush hour). Also a class valedictorian and Oblation scholar, he would become my roommate and best friend in medical school.
On December 2nd of 2009, after having spent the last six months being a part-time teacher in Anatomy and Histology lab, I served as exam proctor for the first year medical students of ASMPH one last time. In a month, I would begin my residency training in Neurosurgery.
It was my job to assign rest stations for the move-type exam. In one of the rest stations, I put a box containing sealed envelopes for each of my students. “Get one. Open after the exam,” the instructions on the station said. Inside each envelope were a copy of Gusto Kong Maging Doktor Dahil, and a letter, that I am posting in full below.
Today, my youngest sister will graduate as valedictorian of her high school class. As she delivers her valedictory address on the podium, my engineer father and my homemaker mother will be listening from dedicated seats in the front row. Dapper in his polo and regal in her blouse handpicked just for the occasion, they will share the spotlight as my sister accepts her gold medal.
“Nakaka-disappoint nga Sir, eh. Kaka-declare pa lang na suspended ang klase bukas dahil sa ulan, tinatanong na agad ako kung puwede bang half day sila. Nung (medical) clerk ako, kahit gaano pa kataas ‘yung baha at kahit gaano kalakas ‘yung ulan, pumapasok kami.”
“You have to realize, not everybody sees the world the same way you do.”
It is hardest to talk to somebody mourning the sudden loss of a loved one. You are faced with questions that demand exact answers, but no explanation is ever enough, no course of action justified. Grief takes away all reason, leaving only an impenetrable wall of shock and anger. You are not even sure if it is appropriate to say sorry; you know that you did the best you could, and still failed.