My father recently turned 60. Due to the unfortunate circumstances of my current professional undertakings, I missed this momentous occasion. When I called him up during his birthday, he said there was no party. After all, a 60th birthday is just another day. My mother, on the other hand, was more keen to celebrate. She said Papa should celebrate his induction into the ranks of those with dual citizenship – Filipino and senior citizen. Very funny, Papa said. Through the phone I can see my mother beam with pride at the joke she had just cracked, something she must have heard somewhere else but already believed to be her original quip. As they chided each other, I was lovingly jealous. I hope I can find someone who can laugh at me after 33 years of imperfect togetherness, someone who would be there to remind me I already have dual citizenship and love me anyway. Ahh, wishful thinking, indeed.
Last week, while I was at a nearby hospital keeping a good friend company while his mom was recuperating from heart failure and other diagnostic dilemmas, I realized that sometimes the difference between excruciating, almost fatal pain and total comfort and relief is nothing more grand or fancy than a simple fart. After hours of being on morphine drip, the old lady suddenly woke up with another bout of severe abdominal pain. Her abdomen was almost rigid, she was hunched over in bed, her face contorted into an indescribable picture of suffering and pain. We gave several morphine boluses but they didn’t work. My friend was in so much anguish too, he was hugging his mom while his eyes were closed in what I believe to be a passionate supplication for his mom to be spared from more agony. The sight of mother and son in so much misery was so heartbreaking it devastated me into a state of helplessness that’s not supposed to be characteristic of a doctor. Unable to do anything more, we resorted to the good old menthol liniment, massage, and the tried and tested only-in-PGH improvisation of a warm compress (warm water in a mineral water bottle). After a few minutes, the big one started to come. It was indeed a loud explosive moment, a massive liberation of all constrained suffering, all packaged in an extravaganza of a thunderous, deafening, odor-free flatulence. After the audacious release of pent-up intestinal gases, an awkward silence engulfed the room. And suddenly, there came another aftershock, and then another, and then several other smaller explosions, creating a heavenly symphony of low-pitched guttural sounds. Feebly, the old lady muttered, “Sorry doktora ha”. My friend and I just looked at each other in mute understanding, “It’s OK. Everything will be alright.”
After about five minutes, the old lady called softly to her son. “Jit, can you sit me up? My pain is gone.” And then she looked at me and with a huge smile on her face said, “Doktora, utot lang pala ang kelangan ko.” And then she laughed, and I laughed, and my friend laughed. And the three of us ended up laughing until we were pretty much farting too.
I've been constantly talking to my oldest consultant lately. At 81 years old, this professor emeritus of the UP College of Medicine is still very active, attending every conference, passionately teaching fellows and residents about the latest journal articles he has read and the scientific conferences he has attended all over the world. His memory is still so sharp that he can accurately identify the journal issue of his recent favorite medical article. Because of his persistence and kakulitan, sharp memory for incomplete tasks and promises, and stubborn adherence to his traditional beliefs, several of my younger consultants and more senior fellows are avoiding him whenever he lounges around at our conference room trying to find someone to talk to. I, on the other hand, have developed this strange fondness for the elderly in general and a strong reverence and fascination for this old man in particular, that I can't resist just being around him, no matter how slow he speaks or how often he repeats his stories. Sometimes, he shows me his Powerpoint slides from his old lectures or future talks for society conventions, while I just sit, nodding my head, occasionally making brief stupid comments or asking my foolish questions.
Here are some things I learned from him: Loners have shorter lives than ordinary people. Cheerful people die younger too, because they tend to have willful disregard of their body's complaints. Optimistic people, on the other hand, have longer lives and have a greater sense of satisfaction at the end of it all. Single women have a 3 times higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Therefore, women must marry to prevent a heart attack. A good man, however, is hard to find. So if you find one, you better stick to it. Men die younger than women. But good men will want to stay healthy so they can take care of their women.
Hours spent with my 81-year-old professor takes away my time from my rounds and my prescribed job. But this is a special opportunity to learn from one of the greatest cardiologists in the country, and I'm loving every minute of it. This morning, he showed me a slide for his February 2010 talk and it said, "Quo Vadis?" And then he turned to me and asked, "Jean, quo vadis?"
And I just humbly said, "Sir, I don't know. I really don't know."