The value of universal health care: Actualized by the Philippine Medical Society of Northern California

(Part 3 OF 3)

“THERE may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passerby only sees a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down—maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.” – Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, 1959.

Imagine not simply waiting for the hour to come as Van Gogh describes, but instead, mustering all we can to stoke the fires within, to give of ourselves and to feel alive?

Imagine losing physicians’ and nurses’ income for a week, spending your own dollars for airfare, hotel, and food expenses to travel 7,461 miles away from America, to give your best efforts to heal folks?

Would you step outside of your comfort zone just to give to others?

“Just help, and [then] come back with satisfaction and don’t even think of the rewards,” as Jesse Madayag, a nurse and volunteer of 17 years said. “Ayaw ninyo ba nang heaven awards (Don’t you want heavenly awards), [where] your returns are divine?”

I sat down for a one-on-one interview with these professionals one stormy evening in Daly City, California, where our travel from Los Angeles took us two days of six hours each and a total of 400 miles one-way, after the rains shut down a major highway, California Highway 1, going to Big Sur, and after a detour, where part of Highway 17 collapsed, which gridlocked traffic.

Yet, my travel paled in comparison to what these 149 volunteers did, which included 32 doctors, two dentists, nurses, educators and students who worked in inclement weather, rains, floods, and still exhibited their best selves to thousands in Dumaguete.

2015 and 2016 were difficult years to procure medical supplies, as most were shipped to Italy’s post-earthquake relief efforts, yet that did not stop Isaac Diolosa, another volunteer nurse from helping. He felt compelled to pay forward his good life in America, after immigrating from Saudi Arabia.

Both he and Jesse helped in the set-up of a provincial hospital operating room, with supplies and personnel to do pre-operational, operational, post-operational recovery ward and if needed, hospitalization.

Lines snaked around the gymnasium complex, which was packed with thousands of locals needing primary health care.

2017 Dumaguete Medical Mission

In February, the Northern California edition of the Asian Journal featured these volunteers, including Negros Oriental Chinese Chamber of Commerce officials and the liaison work done by the Alameda Sister City Association.

Members of the Philippine Medical Society of Northern California (PMSNC) and their friends often bid for the mission to be held in their home provinces and the Board of Directors schedules the missions. The mission coordinator makes a visit a year in advance to talk over the necessary arrangements and form partnerships with local entities, Cynthia Bonta informed us.

But, the 2017 Dumaguete Medical Mission was different in that the Alameda-Dumaguete Sister City Partnership, Cynthia Bonta explained, “as the 2015 invitation was initiated through City of Dumaguete Mayor Manuel T. Sagarbarria during the official formation of the sister city in Alameda, California. The Alameda Sister City members in the US would then provide assistance in hosting the volunteers in Dumaguete, as well as provide support for preparations in California, with the packing of medical supplies and equipment done in Alameda.”

“The Alameda Dumaguete Sister City Partnership includes a humanitarian program in its five-year plan. Dr. Maria Araceli Deguzman, who was among the Alamedans who officially formed this sister city, gave a presentation on the PMSNC medical mission. We knew that PMSNC was our choice partner for humanitarian service,” Bonta shared further.

Bonta, founding Chair of the Alameda Dumaguete Sister City Committee and VP of the Alameda Sister City Association, served as liaison between current Dumaguete City Mayor Felipe Remollo’s designees: Councilor Lani Ramon, Dr. Maria Sarah Talla, Head of the City Health Office, Edward Du, President of the Negros Oriental Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and PMSNC Mission Coordinator, Dr. Marlene Cordero.

Dr. Marlene Cordero, 2017 medical mission coordinator in Dumaguete, reported that 149 volunteers came from both Northern and Southern California to give care to 53 patients in podiatry (folks with foot pain); 183 patients in imaging and ultrasound; dispensed 1,198 pairs of reading glasses; 968 patients had teeth extracted but also blood pressure readings; 3,584 patients in outpatient care (eyes, nose, throat, ears, general medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and other patient services); 82 major surgeries (cleft palate, hernia, thyroid, hysterectomy and cataracts) to a total of 6,187 patients cared for. Everything was done in five days, with pre-planning done ahead of time, by coordinators and volunteers.

While we can easily quantify the monetary costs of the supplies, medications, shipping, and equipment, the dollar amounts belie the true cost of the single medical mission’s total material value, as Dr. De Guzman wisely pointed out.

“You can only imagine but not put a dollar sign on what a group of altruistic doctors who leave their private practices for a week, (while continuing to pay for rent and staff for their medical offices, not to mention professional liability insurance premiums back home) collectively lose in income. We’re not even talking about the costs of these professional services rendered during mission week if they were not free,” Dr. De Guzman shared.

“The Alameda city is very grateful to Dr. De Guzman and PMSNC for bringing their medical mission to their sister city in the Philippines. The sister city mission is to promote peace. No better way can we do that than through medical service and health care,” Bonta added.

How did I hear about them? Recruited by Bonta in January of this year, Enrique de la Cruz, Ph.D., a certificated educator on geriatric health and wellness (and this writer’s husband), joined the medical mission, where he conducted four health seminars on healthy strategies of living, even if with diabetes, hypertension and arthritis.

Dr. Maria Araceli de Guzman: Laoag medical mission coordinator for 2016

Now on her 15th medical mission while living in the U.S., I talked to Dr. De Guzman — Cely to her friends and Maria to work colleagues, named after her grandma. Her mom grew up with the Benedictine Sisters in Tacloban, where Dr. De Guzman learned about giving to others.

She also learned about the genesis of her name, “Sta. Maria de Araceli,” a baroque-styled church built in the late 17th century by Emperor Augustine for the Blessed Mother Mary, who dreamt of having Jesus. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Dr. De Guzman walked 200 steps uphill in the pouring rain, to enter the Sta. Maria de Araceli church.

At 21 years old, her surgeon mentors were Drs. Florentino (Boy) Doble, a general surgeon, and Dr. Jose “Ping” Duran, an eye surgeon.

“They were volunteer doctors of the UST Medical Missions, Inc., essentially the very first organized professional medical mission group in the country,” she shared.

She volunteered to help with the Mangyans, Mindoro’s indigenous people, who sought medical care from their medical mission. Even then, Dr. De Guzman believed in the value of universal health care for all peoples, regardless of ethnic or tribal origins, G-strings or not, as other medical mission doctors.

She watched how confident her mentor was, Dr. Corazon Rivera-Arcangel, an anesthesiologist. She also watched how other doctors performed thyroid surgeries and cleft palates repairs. Her job was to hold the retractor for the surgeons so they might see the tissue. Towards the end of the week, she was given the task of cutting off the last of the thyroid tissue hanging.

That completed task stayed with her and gave her a sense of human connection, a sense of fulfillment and direction for her future. She knew she wanted to be in an operating room and to join medical missions.

While talking to her classmates over Coke and peanuts, she told them about her summer’s medical mission. They too wanted a similar mission in their province, Borongan, Samar.

One classmate’s father is Samar’s governor, while another classmate’s father was the provincial auditor. Samar was a young province and it could not supply the airfare needed for the volunteers, but it could supply a site for the medical mission to happen. So, they did Christmas caroling to raise the airfares of five personnel: two surgeons, two anesthesiologists, and one nurse. The surgical team effectively removed goiters, hernias, and cataracts.

“We did so much in five days more than what I would have seen in an operating room in UST,” Dr. De Guzman said. “We saw 40 cases in five days, starting early and ending at midnight. People kept bringing in food and some traveled by boat from the interior barangays, as Samar had only rough roads then. That’s when I discovered that folks in those far-flung areas had goiters as large as footballs!”

Humanity was best served by these professional volunteers, who gave parts of themselves to better the lives of others. Priceless volunteer work which ended up stoking their fires within!

Part III B continues the piece on these incredibly noble Filipino-American volunteers. Allow me to wish you a Happy Easter and joyful Resurrection of God tomorrow, Easter Sunday 2017!

Footnote: Part I was on the Acupuncture Insights of R. Antonio Whiteley, published on April 1, 2017. Part II was on The Reform of Health Care Through Healthy Eating, published April 8, 2017. Part III A is on the Philippine Medical Society of Northern California’s Medical Mission in Dumaguete, published on April 15, 2017. Part III B will appear next week.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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