Attachment of Health Care I (Health as a Multifactorial Phenomenon)
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It was a weltering hot that afternoon – not unusual in the Philippines, but not a time for hurrying either. That’s why I knew something was wrong when a man came hurrying up the stairs of the convent. The man was Gregorio and he told me his wife. Lina, who was pregnant, was sick with cholera. He and a friend had carried her for four hours from their mountain home using a hammock as a stretcher. When they arrived at the town of Togoc, they found the doctor had gone. Togoc is one of the several parishes situated in the mountains of the island of Negros with the population of some 20,000 people. The pastor there now, Fr. Eugenio, tell me that they have no doctor, though they still have a dilapidated clinic. When I was there, about a year ago, a doctor sometimes visited us. Gregorio wanted to borrow our vehicle to take his wife to the hospital in the lowlands – a two – hour ride over a rocky road. But I explained to him that Fr. Hilario had taken the jeepney, but would go with him to the clinic anyhow to see what could be done. We found Lina lying at the clinic crying out in pain. Obviously, she desperately needed help, so we hurried out to search for the young doctor assigned to Togoc for six month’s rural training. But he was away in an outlying and so we waited for what seemed like ages before he came back.
He immediately wrote out prescription for Gregorio, who ran barefoot along the road to a little shop stock with pitifully small supplies of medicine. The doctor wrote another prescription. Gregorio sped away again, only to return once more – breathless and empty-handed. “We need dextrose,” said the doctor, “but there is none here in town.” All of us fanned out through, the neighbourhood asking people if they had any. Finally, a woman produced a half-filled bottle left over from what her husband used before he died. I brought it to the doctor. He looked up exasperated and said, “The clinic has no dextrose needle. We’ll have to take her down Kabankalan.” “Doc, you know she’ll die on the way,” I said. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” He then tried to give the dextrose with a large needle, nut the vein in her arms and legs had collapsed. He tried the veins on the neck. That was no good either. We all stood there helpless as Lina screamed in pain. Gregorio was mute with confusion; their little child was wandering around the bed. Finally, the doctor gave her some Coca-cola – the only “Medicine” available. Once more the doctor insisted Lina would have to journey down to Kabankalan.
Since the priest wouldn’t be back, there was nothing else to do but start the haggling for the rented jeepney. It would be expensive and Gregorio had nothing, but we were in no position to haggle with a life at sake. Gregorio laid Lina on the same hammock that had used to carry her down the mountain, and strung it up inside the jeepney. All the time she cried out in pain. We had no sedatives, to calm her with. The doctor sat beside Gregorio. Before they left I whispered to Lina to be brave, there would be help. “Hang on,” I said. The jeepney moved slowly, bouncing along the terrible road, until it slowly disappeared from sight. I whispered a hopeless prayer as if God who forgives would also, at a stroke, undo the accumulated effects of our unjust system. When Fr. Hilario got back to the convent the following afternoon, I poured out the story to him. As we were talking, Gregorio appeared at the door. He looked as if he had walked the whole way back which was over 30 kilometres. His face told the story – Lina had died halfway down the journey. She had begged to stop the jeepney: the pain being too much. They stopped, and as they did, she died and so also taking the life of the child inside.
And now followed a strange development. The doctor and driver insisted that maybe she was still alive! They would not heed Gregorio’s please to return in Togoc. So the jeepney continued on and deposited Gregorio and his dead wife at a doctor’s house clinic in a large barrio! The doctor was not there, and the housewife naturally got mad at Gregorio for bringing a dead patient. But the jeepney driver would not carry Gregorio and Lina any further. “Against the law,” He said, and, “Of course, it would be bad luck too.” The young doctor must have had very little understanding of just how destitute Gregorio was – how desperately poor of our people are – because what he did next still amazes me. He went on to Kabankalan with the jeepney driver and asked an expensive western-style funeral home to take care of the corpse. For Gregorio, who had to pay for the expenses anything was better than to leave his wife in an unfriendly house. Now Gregorio stood there numb and exhausted. What else could he do? The funeral home would not return the body till paid the bills from embalming and not bringing the body back to Togoc.
It was 8,000 pesos. This was more than any amount Gregorio had ever held in his whole life. Just think that 250 pesos worth of medicine would have saved the life of both Lina and her baby! It was the end as far as I was concerned. But not for Gregorio. He would borrow the money from us and sell his land to pay us! I suggested we send down our vehicle for the body, but there was a question about the being illegal. And then, would Perfecto our faithful driver, overcome the same superstitious fear of carrying a dead body in his vehicle? “Apart from that,” said Fr. Hilario, “Our beat-up vehicle might never make it down and up again.” Gregorio watched us argue. He was beyond feeling.
Finally we decided to consult Perfecto. When Fr. Hilario left, Gregorio pleaded, “Father, don’t leave Lina in Kabankalan” – and he wept. Perfecto was brief and to the point – “The vehicle will make it down, and we’ll get it welded there. Then I’ll drive it back – I’m not afraid to carry a dead body.” Then he planned on how to deal with the funeral home – there would be some brutal bargaining to do. I have not told this story well; the details have been smothered over by so many similar incidents. Did Gregorio carry Lina for eight hours, not four? Did we get the body back for 1500 pesos or what? The cases blur in similarity and your mind stops making distinctions. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that if we had enough money to supply the poor with medicines, or not to have argue over hiring of a jeepney, not have to worry about the wreck that our vehicle is, the problems would end. That might help relieve our worry and tension, but it would solve the problems, for they are recurrent and deep-rooted. (GIVE THE CURRENT SITUATION OF HEALTH IN THE COUNTRY)
When we brought Lina back to Togoc, Gregorio asked for the lid to be taken off the coffin so that he could be photographed with his child and wife for the last time. I’m afraid the picture is not clear enough to be printed. But when I looked at it I sometimes wonder – “Gregorio, where are you now? Have you returned to your mountain plot? Who looks after your little child? Do you blame yourself for poverty, for Lina’s death? Will you ever escape from the shadow of the failure that is not your fault, but is rooted in exploitative and oppressive systems? Will you ever wake up?