He was training to be a cardiologist. Checkered polo shirt, short-sleeved white coat, a stethoscope around his neck, eyes on the verge of disappearing as he tilts his head to the right and breaks into a gentle smile—his photos that circulated on social media ticked all the boxes. Before pursuing this career path, he had chosen to serve for two years as a doctor to the barrio in Occidental Mindoro, and immediately one would have known that this cardiology fellow’s heart was in the right place. On March 21, the news of Dr. Israel Bactol’s death reverberated throughout the Filipino medical community, as everyone tried to make sense of what was happening, too fast, too soon. He was 34.
Last Tuesday morning, after doing patient rounds in Philippine General Hospital (PGH), I came across two nurses from the emergency department, walking in the opposite direction towards the hospital. It was the first workday after President Rodrigo Duterte put Luzon on enhanced community quarantine, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
We need to talk about doctor shaming on social media. This month alone, I have seen three separate posts in which a patient’s watcher, presumably a relative, snaps a photo of the involved physician or intern, and then posts the image on Facebook with either a disgruntled remark or an agonizing narrative alleging that the doctor is being negligent by sleeping while on duty or acting rudely when dealing with patients and their families. The post invariably generates commiseration in the form of likes and comments, only a few of which could be considered constructive, some even bordering on harassment and libel.
The outcry: “Ipa-viral ’yang doktor/intern na ’yan!”
Earlier this week, a medical intern’s photo of the emergency department of Philippine General Hospital circulated online and became viral. It showed an overcrowded triage area packed with patients lying on bare metal stretchers, fazed watchers, and not surprisingly, only a handful of medical personnel. Because of a change in the start of the academic year, the student workforce had been reduced to a third of its usual number. “Madness. We need help,” part of the caption read.
While I sat in front of the TV in the comfort of my apartment as Yolanda (Haiyan) unleashed her fury in Central Visayas, these doctors to the barrios (DTTBs) decided to stay at the forefront instead of going back home when the super typhoon hit their respective municipalities.
Rather than point fingers and waste time ranting on what should have and could have been done, allow me to share the first-hand stories of my colleagues, so that the Filipino medical community and the rest of the nation can focus all effort instead on what can be done right here and right now, to create meaningful impact on the people who have been hardest hit by this catastrophe.
The joy of seeing my post-operative patients follow up in the outpatient clinic, feeling much better than before I operated on them, cannot outweigh the helplessness I feel whenever I 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 lingo kung hindi pa rin po namin kayo tinatawagan.”
It still breaks my heart a little, every single time.