Withstanding the tempests


During the wedding anniversary of one of my aunts, Divine Mercy Parish, Sikatuna, Quezon City. Feast of the Divine Mercy, 2015.

Recently, my Lolo Max comes to mind quite frequently. Interestingly, it’s not through specific memories of being with him, but through recalling his life advice. Most useful for me now is how he taught us to weather the figurative tempests in our lives: difficult memories and their accompanying emotions.

Once in a while, in between projects and busy schedules, memories come to mind which evoke a variety of emotions. Some give solace in times of stress, others stress in times of relative ease. Inevitably, there will be people, places, things, and other sensory perceptions that would produce emotions that are just too difficult to ignore.

I guess that this is the innate difficulty of someone having a keen sense of memory, something that was definitely useful back in college. But just as how this facilitates unwieldy emotions as much as pleasant ones, I have come to realize that managing memories and the emotions that accompany them require the ability to step back and look at the greater picture.

Perception of the greater picture, for me, is just like looking at the satellite picture of the Earth, with all kinds of clouds forming seemingly out of nowhere. Some clouds turn into storms, others into thinner clouds that bode well for outdoor activity. This perspective teaches me that emotions are just like these storms, they come out of nowhere, but also pass away.

Further supporting this realization is a personal experience of our family more than two decades ago, back when my parents were adjusting with the new life we had to adjust to in the province, after living the first eight years of my life in the city. My mother was having difficulty managing all of the adjustments–new language, new way of life, new office–and she sought the advice of my grandfather. My grandfather Lolo Max, the wordsmith that he was, wrote her about the “need to withstand the tempests,” and “being well-assured that everything shall be well after the storm.”

I quote him now with bare assurance of accuracy, as I was only able to read that letter when I was in third grade; it had been lost. But with how things went for the better and how negative events and emotions have come and gone, I now realize the wisdom to withstand the tempests, and being well-assured that all shall be well indeed.

The last instance I was able to share with him was the pain of rejection after not getting accepted for further training. I remembered him giving simple yet practical advice, effectively cutting through his senile-looking self. He first asked me what I was planning to do next. When I replied that I was going back to the academe, he simply told me, “galingan mo na lang sa ginagawa mo (do well in what you are doing),” and continued to challenge me to excel and reach the pinnacle of the career I have chosen.

This, from a man who despite his advanced age, endeavored to learn and show his innate strength, who even toyed with the idea to attend law school, and who in his youth took on a variety of jobs that showed his multi-disciplinary prowess. A native of Southern Leyte in the Visayas, he was a photographer, a painter, a writer, a poet, and a traditional healer. In his sunset years, to pass idle time, he would read from law books he had borrowed from my parents, and made effort to ask about current events. On the day of his death, I even felt a strong force pulling my legs out of bed, which happened at about the same time he had lost consciousness. I now choose to believe that that was his way of telling me that he would always be with me, and that I should always stay strong.

To stay strong and keep trying, knowing that difficulties come and go, memories and emotions are transient, and everything shall be well: that was his advice. I have since chosen new paths to follow and places to leave behind, some amicably and unfortunately some not, while nevertheless knowing that all shall be well.

It’s been almost a year since Lolo Max died, and as I navigate the world with all its drudgery, tears and joys, his advice continues to inspire.

Thank you Lolo. I miss you.


Breaking the hiatus

It’s been a while since I was able to write anything on my blog. But for the past weeks, I’ve been very happy balancing my teaching with real world experience, both in the field and in engaging with health policy researchers and decision makers.

For instance, thanks to my friends in a health policy consulting firm, we are helping public health program managers develop integrative policies. In another project I’m doing, I am mentoring colleagues who are developing their skill in health policy and systems research in government health agencies. In yet another project with foreign colleagues, we are aiming to identify points for improvement in health financing in Asean. On top of these is my work with #HealthXPh and mentoring our community medicine rotators in an urban poor community in the south of Manila.

There has been so much to learn from my interactions from various collaborators, both within the country and internationally, that I have been very enthusiastic to bring the learnings back to home turf, in the college where I work. Melding these lessons with my own experiences in public health strengthens my drive even more. I feel a certain sense of responsibility to share these things to my students. I have to show that in aiming to serve the poor and marginalized, the way to go is to be ready to accept different views, insights and changes.

But, expectedly, change will be unacceptable at the start, just like the evoked feeling of unusual pasalubong that relatives bring home from a foreign country. Sometimes, the seeming initial rejection is enough to frustrate, even leading one to move on and look for more appreciative venues.

Nonetheless, this isn’t enough reason to give up.

Though I will agree that it takes skill and practice to pitch one’s ideas, change and progress have to be embraced. Change is never easy. Like how stressed aquarium fishes tend to get after the water gets changed, it’s understandable if one’s efforts towards increasing awareness and building self-reliance seem to backfire at the start.

This brings me to why I try to adjust the way I teach: the world isn’t getting kinder.

Five Filipino doctors, three in public health and two in clinical specialty fields, were killed within the past six months. These deaths may be due to a variety of reasons, but as someone who shared in their career paths at one point of my life, I feel that these deaths are a manifestation of how our health system is enmeshed with politics, governance, business and other seemingly unrelated pursuits, and how future doctors have to be well-equipped. Meanwhile, an increasing number of colleagues have been victims of doctor shaming, where doctors exercising their ordinary care and diligence are being berated on social media for various reasons.

We need doctors who will not rest on their laurels.

I believe that getting ready to practice in a world afflicted with these things requires a balance of versatility, proactivity and discipline. Those traits may well be cultivated in good class attendance, in diligently solving a biostatistics problem, or recognizing the merits of producing a creative work. Meanwhile, the lack thereof may well be demonstrated in cases in which health professionals would fail to provide the prescribed intervention to destitute patients, by not making do with limited resources, or doing something to address the lack. This is the kind of situation I would like to prevent, since lives hang in the balance.

Despite the odds, I am optimistic. I know it may be difficult for my students, but I hope this gets to them: we are in this together. I share in the difficulty, since learning how to be an effective mentor is difficult as well. Nevertheless, for the sake of our changing world and the patients we serve, the journey has to be trod. The good news though is we can moderate the pace of the journey.

But not too slow. The world and our patients anxiously await.