Thursday, September 25, 2008

‘Surgeons do not cry’

“My knife is my wife,” Dr. Jose “Ting” Tiongco told me 12 years ago. “My fascination with surgery has been total I have forgotten to get married.”

Ting is a brilliant surgeon, one of the passionate doctors who blazed a trail in health care cooperatives in Davao and later in the rest of the Philippines. Twelve years ago I did a feature-review (“Ting Tiongco and the dream”) of his book “Child of the Sun Returning”. On his book he had scribbled, “You once asked me if I was writing a book. I did. In my heart. Aniana.” Aniana is Visayan for “here it is.” A more dramatic translation would be “It is here.”

Earlier, I did a long cover story on him for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. I went to Mindanao just for that. I got to watch him perform a Caesarian operation and interview his fellow doctor-visionaries. These doctors were once called “doctors who refuse to say die”.

Twelve years after “Child of the Sun Returning” I received from Ting another book titled “Surgeons Do Not Cry”, a compilation of his column pieces for a Mindanao news agency. On it he scrawled: “Twelve years later and the anger and bewilderment is still there. Thank God there is still hope!”

I was in Davao recently but I didn’t have the time to track Ting down. I hope he gets in touch. He must have a lot of stories crying out to be told. So Ting, let’s hear them, minus the wine.

If “Child of the Sun Returning” is the amazing story of the Medical Mission Group Hospitals and Health Services Cooperative Philippines (MMGHHSCP) as told by Ting who was one of its founders, “Surgeons Do Not Cry” (published by the UP Press) is about his earlier life, that is, as a medical student of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM). The book was launched at UPCM yesterday.

It would be worth mentioning that before UPCM, Ting was a dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue Atenean from up the hill. And no wonder, UPCM presented itself as a new frontier, a wilderness to be conquered, and later, loved and be forever a part of his vision in life.

Published recently, the book is a fitting tribute to UP which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It is also a good read for everyone, and most especially for aspiring doctors and health workers with blurred vision or whose sights are set on, ugh, serving on foreign shores. Ting’s idealism might just rub off on them. And Ting has a great writing style-wry, acerbic, cynical, raging, tongue-in-cheek. He does not write from the clouds. He writes from ground level.

Ting’s stories are neither pedantic nor platitudinous. They are everyday stories of a medical student, intern and resident at the UP-Philipine General Hospital. Here was a doctor-to-be on fire, so intense and so focused and yet having a great time. He was also in a hurry.

The reminiscences about those experiences of yesteryears were obviously written just recently or on hindsight, so one could sense the warmth and the fondness that come with distance and the passing of the years. One could also sense the confidence of a man who has poured out much.

Here is the story about the woman who yawned and locked her jaw (intern Ting had to “unlock” it twice); about Aling Bening, a patient’s mother who regularly stole food from the patients’ food cart “baka maubusan” (because there might be none left for her son); about blood donations or gota de sangre (a drop of blood) from medical interns; cheating at UPCM; “death on the table”—these could make a whole season of “E.R.” Philippine-version.

Instead of talking about what’s in the book, I might as well offer some excerpts.

From “Lanceta”: “A surgeon’s worst nightmare is to lose a patient on his operating table. So if and when this happens, it becomes a part of his life that is not to be forgotten forever—a DOT as we called it in UP-PGH. Death on the table.

“I had mine early. And to a certain extent, as my team captain would tell me later, I was spoiling for it…Arnulfo B. was in his late 40s, married and working as a welder during the daytime and as a part-time jeepney driver at night. At three in the morning, while he was plying the Malabon-Manila route, four men held him at knifepoint and demanded his money. He refused, thinking of his 10 children…So they stabbed him.

“There was a stunned silence in the OR as I closed Arnulfo B. as carefully as I usually closed all my operations. I wished aloud that God would not have to teach humility to doctors, especially surgeons, by using other people’s lives…Weary and red-eyed, I plodded out of the operating suites at five in the morning, just as the eastern sky was breaking into dawn. I desperately wanted to take a deep breath but I couldn’t do it without breaking into tears…

“Lani, my scrub nurse, had followed me out. And as she put her arm around the wife and began the ritual played outside so many operating rooms…I turned back to the operating suites and walked briskly away.

“Surgeons don’t cry.”

That’s where the title came from.

From “Stories”: “I packed all my baggage and collected my last experiences from UP-PGH on my last day of duty. I took a lone, last tour around the UP-PGH campus like a runner who, having run his last race, would take a ceremonial lap around the stadium….”

In the book is the voice of the boy who started out as “a screaming mess of contradictions and full of agonizing questions.” Ting dedicates the book to “a little girl, whose name rings bells in heaven.”

Ting, 61, once told me: “Becoming a doctor was the next best thing to priesthood. Total dedication. You give your whole mind, your soul.” Before taking that piece of cold steel in his gloved hand, he would whisper before the first incision: “Introibo ad altare dei…” (I will go unto the altar of God).