I am writing my entry to the blog carnival from Los Angeles. My 4 children are happily visiting their birth country after staying and studying for 2 years in the Philippines. This is just one of the many crossroads in my life.
Living a full life is similar to going on a journey. Medicine was never an end for me. Early on, I didn’t decide on becoming a surgeon or an obstetrician or an infectious diseases specialist. I decided I was going to begin living an autonomous life as soon as I graduated from medical school. I never bothered to apply for residency training in the Philippines because I could not bear the thought of continuing to depend on my parents for financial assistance after going to school for 22 straight years. It was America or bust.
I have always looked at challenges and adversity as opportunities for growth. The county hospital in Brooklyn, NY where I trained had more than a 90% AIDS caseload. Because there were very few US medical graduates willing to take the risk, I was able to receive superior medical preparation that enabled me to take on future challenges with confidence and competence. I trained at a time when we had to draw blood ourselves, wheel patients to x-ray, before the famous Bell Commission reduced the working hours of resident physicians--when it wouldn’t overly bother us to admit 12 patients on a call night and work 48 hours nonstop.
I look back and I am grateful. What would now be considered illegal and cruel punishment turned out to be a very effective way to acquire skills that would be very useful later.
After Brooklyn, private medical practice was a breeze. Because I entered the US on a J visa, I was required to “serve” a medically underserved area for 2 years. Guymon, Oklahoma with a population of 10,000 became home for more than 10 years. When I began, many patients would not even consider a “foreigner” to treat them. I know this because in the course of my stay, many of my patients would confess to this initial reluctance.
I never missed a Saturday clinic in 4 years. My home number was listed in the phone book and because I was available at all times, my wife and I would see up to 130 patients each day. It didn’t bother me that all that action in New York was so far away and that the nearest mall was 2 hours by car in Amarillo, Texas because I was looking towards another crossroads.
I grew up in the traumatic period of Martial Law. I still can’t understand how some people can long for the return of those days. It was terrible because the vast majority of us were afraid to fight for our freedom and dignity as human beings. Even then, I was painfully troubled by the horrible poverty that alienated and destroyed so many Filipino lives. I always dreamt of seeking my fortune elsewhere and return like the Count of Monte Cristo, vastly more prepared and equipped to help change a hopelessly corrupt system and way of life.
We doctors see a lot of dying in our business. This comes with the territory. We are reminded too often that at the end of our lives, it won’t be the amount of money we stashed in the bank, or the number of vehicles parked in our garage, or how many kids we put through Ivy-league institutions…. We should know better, that our brief lives will be measured by the service we dispense to the less-fortunate; and without a map and without a compass, this is what should guide each one of us through these crossroads.