Public Lives

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Next time our political leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives find themselves awash in so-called “savings” at the end of the year, they might want to drop by any of our public hospitals. At the charity wards they will see for themselves how the poor desperately try to cope with the unexpected burden that an illness or an accident imposes on their already fragile existence. One hopes they will then be moved to share a tiny fraction of their fat bonuses with the ordinary people they are supposed to serve. Doing so may recover for our political system the perception of usefulness it has considerably lost.

I was on my way to the Philippine Orthopedic Center in Quezon City the other day when I heard the news on radio about Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s generous cash gifts to his fellow senators. Eighteen senators received P1.6 million each, while four others who were known critics of Enrile got the lesser amount of P250,000. At the House, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. was reported to have given away cash gifts of P500,000 to every representative. Reacting to growing public criticism that this is public money that no one has a right to give away in the form of personal gifts, Enrile clarified that what he had distributed to the senators was not a Christmas bonus but additional MOOE (maintenance and other operating expenses) for their offices and committees. Every senator still has to account for every peso received, he added. This is nothing but word play.

It’s a long time since I have been to the “Orthopedic,” as most Filipinos refer to it. As a motorcycle rider, I dread to see this place, for obvious reasons. But, because of its excellent reputation as a tertiary hospital for accident victims, this will be my place of choice should I, heaven forbid, ever fall.

I came by to visit an old friend, an 84-year-old lady who has been good to me all these years because of a little act of kindness I did for her more than 30 years ago. Strong and physically active despite her age, she broke her thigh bone recently when she fell from a chair. The information desk told me she is in the female charity ward on the third floor of one of the buildings. This whole place is a maze of narrow corridors filled with people. The scarcity of space is staggering.

Outpatients and their companions occupy every conceivable inch of space as they wait for their turn to see their doctors.

Built by the Americans in 1945 to treat civilians who bore injuries from the war, the “Orthopedic” was transferred in the early ’60s from its original site in Mandaluyong to where it is today—a cluster of low buildings at the corner of Banawe and Maria Clara streets in Quezon City. It had 200 beds in 1963; today, it has 700. Considering that there were less Filipinos, much less private vehicles, and hardly any motorcycles 50 years ago, one wonders where poor victims of vehicular accidents go for treatment.

I found the old lady in a cramped room that had about 20 beds. All the beds, and the floor underneath them, were taken. Every patient in that room had an immobilized limb hoisted and resting on a sling. My friend was asleep when I arrived. Her left leg was swollen, and the pieces of the thigh bone that was crushed by the impact of her fall were being held together by a stainless shaft delicately attached to the sling.

“Lola has been waiting for you; she needs an operation,” her neighbors in the ward chorused. She had clearly been talking about me with her newfound friends. Just then she woke up, and, still in a daze, she clutched my arm and broke into a sob. “Please don’t cry,” I muttered, trying to soothe her. “Don’t worry about the operation, or about the cost. I will talk to your doctor.” As I found out later, she does need surgery. I advised her to have it as soon as possible, assuring her that I would help with the expenses.

Help. That magic word does wonders to people. It lifts them instantly from despair, allowing them, if only for a brief moment, to see their lives ahead of them again.

Help is what the young woman next to her has been waiting for in the last three months. Rushing to get home from work at a factory in Valenzuela City one early evening last October, she hitched a ride on the motorbike of a fellow worker. The bike lost control and she was thrown into the air like a ball. She was lucky not to have landed on her head because she wasn’t wearing a protective helmet, but her right leg was broken in several places. The deep wound on her leg healed fast but the broken bone needs to be secured by a metal plate implant. The plate costs P38,000, and her widowed mother, a house help, has been moving heaven and earth to raise the amount.

That’s when I thought of the bonuses that our legislators received over the holidays.  “Where are you from?” I asked the mother. They were migrants from Ormoc; now she works as a maid for a family in Valenzuela. “Go and see your congressman or a senator, or try getting help from the PCSO,” I advised her. I gave her a little money for transportation and food, and this touched her so much she lifted my hand and pressed it on her teary face.

I am of two minds about advice like this. I know that dispensing charity is not the proper function of legislators. But, neither are the hundred and one things they claim the right to do—for which they get huge pork barrel allocations. I have always believed that our people should be freed from the clutches of the patronage system if they are to play a positive role in a democracy. But this will not happen unless enough public funds are allotted to build and expand essential institutions like the Philippine Orthopedic Center. Until then, the poor have no choice but to call upon their leaders and fellow citizens for help.

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