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August 31, 2013

Dirty White Gown: Reflections of a Community Doctor

   It has been 6 years since I became a medical doctor. Before Day One I already decided to be a community physician. There were opportunities to do otherwise and not a day went by when I questioned myself for having chosen the "road less traveled." Somehow, I felt that my heart was in the right place, there in the deep recesses of the community, the most part of it forgotten by mainstream society. 

  Today, I look back thinking to myself, "Was it all worth it?"

  I became a Doctor to the Barrios deployed in a mountainous area far from the comfort and safety of family and all things familiar. I served, for 2 years, a people not my own, a place where I never had prior connection. Yet, each day I spent working with them, I realized how badly they needed the most basic of health care services which perhaps have been deprived from them. Each day I resolved to not only cure the sick but to cure the illness that plagued the society at large, to acknowledge how inequities make the poor even more disadvantaged. I became a student of poverty, of misfortune, of injustice, and the poor and neglected were my teachers. It was the mother who walked for 5 kilometers and brought her bleeding newborn suffering from Vit. K deficiency who taught me about poverty. It was the husband who brought his pregnant wife in labor, suffering from pre-eclampsia, and was told that they should be brought to a hospital 35 kilometers away for treatment and for a possible C-section, who taught me about inequity.

They taught me how life could be unfair and that a simple sickness which can be treated with a pill can be very life-threatening for a poor who has no money to even pay for a motorcycle to bring him to the health center. They taught me how clean water can be more precious than gold and that they failed to seek a doctor not because they were ignorant but because they never had any means of going to one. Not a day went by that I was not exposed to the hardship of a farmer who had to leave his children in their home to tend to a piece of land that did not belong to him.  

And so began the transformation, from a clinician arrayed by the immaculately white lab gown adorned with the all-powerful stethoscope and a worshiping fan club of nurses and interns to a doctor whose specialty is to diagnose and treat the social illnesses. I didn't want to. I didn't know how. But as I looked at the desolate faces of a people forgotten by the world, I had no choice. They never asked me to. Perhaps they never knew and would never know that I made such a choice. But it was a choice that one has to make. I never knew that with this choice came such hardships that could wither the spirit.

  In the days when work was harsh and the work was left unappreciated, the succeeding nights would be dark and lonely. Somehow, through the dark low-lying clouds that hang over my workplace, rare droplets of sunlight would tap on my roof as if to tell me, "Patience".

  And so I invested my patience on a hope that what we do in the community will find its course to the oblivious and seemingly indifferent society. Many times I felt that such hope might never grow and I shall never see the end of it, not in my lifetime. Such a dim forecast made me wonder, "Is this all worth it?"

  Envy became a distraction especially in dull moments when I was alone left to despair and browse through the pictures of peers whose fortunes fare better than mine. If only I can live a simple life. After envy would come doubt and it would thicken the smog that covers the vision of a hope that not even those who needed it can see. 

  Perhaps it was only the longing for home that made the body heavy as it labored for this hope. Since then I found myself working far from home and family. Perhaps it is the unfriendly economy that is making a passionate doctor doubt his passion. After all, passion can only bring me this far and there are things in this world that come every month in the form of bills that passion alone cannot pay for. Perhaps it is the daunting challenge itself that screams against me, telling me that I will fail and that there is no use in trying. 

  Every day since then I face the mirror and question who I see. In the eyes of the poor whose disease is chronic impoverishment,I question the doctor that I see. 

  From the day I left the community when my contract as a DTTB ended, I felt that my spirit was crippled, that I would never be the same again. Tried as I might to deny the call to endure and persevere, the ghosts of the past persisted in my head. I tried running away, working as a medical doctor aboard a cruise ship, traveled around the world where the shadows of poverty could not reach. Yet, they never left me. And I found myself being pulled back to the road chosen since the first day. 

  So I chose for the second time to take off the white lab gown in exchange for an ordinary shirt, to leave my stethoscope in exchange for a microphone and every day I would meet patients who are not sick but are in need of a cure, a cure for their apathy and social blindness. As a medical doctor working for an NGO, I began to re-invest again in the lost hope once seen in the abandoned plains of a far-flung mountainous town. 

  Whenever able, I would re-emerge into the mainstream society, in the halls of medical schools and in the vast grounds of cyberspace, to shout and scream as John the Baptist would in the wilderness. In most cases, my screams are more desperate than ever, like a beggar's silent stare with his arm extended asking for alms. In my words, I would describe the faces of inequity, the anatomy of poverty and the pathology that perpetuates the disillusionment of the sickly poor. Many times I can sense that my words are not heard and like a beggar would, I would return to where I would sleep, hands empty, body weak and eyes dry. I would think about whether I used the right words or not, if I was convincing enough or not. And then I wonder how selfish I was to think of myself, disguised in the idea of thinking about others, while I could not even think of my own family. 

  And this is the curse I have to re-live every day.

  So I would wake up every morning, wear my metaphorical dirty white gown, search for the stethoscope that isn't there, and head to work because the patient, the society, the community, is still sick. "Is this all worth it?" I do hope, at least, for one person out there, it will be. 

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