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Gentle giant

/ 12:14 AM March 13, 2017

Part of the legacy from Spain is the Filipino practice of naming children after saints of the Catholic Church. My own family is a good example. Our two boys Miguel and Francisco are named after St. Michael the Archangel and St. Francis of Assisi, while our daughter Carmela was christened after Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Other Filipino families are fond of baptizing their children with the names of famous military and historical figures like Napoleon, Alexander, Rommel, Caesar, Mikhail, and Socrates. A friend of mine has for his first name, Oliver Cromwell.

One of the most famous of children with religious names is former vice president Jejomar Binay. His first name stands for “Jesus, Joseph and Mary.” One would think that with such a title, the young man was headed for a life in a deeply religious setting. Instead he found himself in politics and the field of governance.

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In the case of Dennis and Leovigilda Perlas of Batan in the province of Aklan, they named their first-born Dreyfuss, perhaps in memory of Alfred Dreyfus, the central figure in one of the great political dramas of modern French history. For those not too familiar with the case, Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army captain of Jewish origin who in a time of rising antisemitism in France, was convicted for the crime of passing military secrets to the Germans. He would be sentenced to life imprisonment and imprisoned at the infamous Devil’s Island in French Guiana. His case would draw worldwide notice, primarily because of an open letter “J’Accuse” by Émile Zola, calling attention to the injustice of his conviction. Dreyfus would eventually be acquitted and even awarded a Legion of Honor.

Dreyfuss Perlas grew up to a height of 6 feet, 3 inches, and was the tallest in his class. He would probably have been good for basketball but, unfortunately, his movements were often awkward. And so he decided to take up medicine, finishing biology at UP Los Baños, before finishing at the West Visayas State University College of Medicine in Iloilo City, on a Department of Health scholarship.

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His DOH scholarship called for two years of service under what is known as the “Doctors To The Barrios” (DTTB) program. The program is aimed at providing adequate medical care and attention to remote and doctor-less areas of the country.

Sen. Juan Flavier, who saw the need for more community-based health programs particularly in fifth- and sixth-class municipalities, founded the DTTB.

As a member of Batch 30 of the program, Doctor Perlas volunteered to serve in Sapad, Lanao del Norte. After completing the required period of service, he opted to stay on as municipal health officer of the town. His mother described her son as passionate in his desire to help others, and friends and colleagues saw him as a “gentle giant” who was loved by members of the community.

A former patient, a certain Ms. Pacuingan, recounts how she met Doctor “Drey” as he was fondly known. Her six-month-old son was suffering from severe fever and other complications. One afternoon, while feeding him, she noticed that the boy was not breathing anymore. She didn’t know what to do, and started to panic. She hurriedly rushed him to the nearest rural health unit, and there was Doctor Perlas. He welcomed them with a big smile, and calmed her down while attending to the baby. After a short while, the baby started to cry, and the doctor said to her, “OK na si baby.”

During his brief stint at Sapad, Doctor Drey successfully lobbied for the renovation of the old rural health unit. He facilitated its accreditation for primary care benefits, and brought into the community tuberculosis and maternity care packages. He worked for mandatory immunization of all the children.

In a message on his role as a doctor serving in the barrio, he said: “I see my own improvement as a citizen and a doctor as a contribution to the betterment of the country. I participate in community work and medical missions, and I always feel a sense of accomplishment when imparting knowledge on the essentials of health care, and offering solutions that alleviate the difficulties of our people.”

While driving his motorbike on the way home to Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte, he was gunned down by an unknown assailant.

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What could possibly be more senseless than killing a doctor who provided medical services in a place that had not known the presence of a physician for the last 12 years? Even in a deadly conflict, it is for the benefit of opposing forces to keep alive medical personnel regardless of whose side they serve.

One can never tell when their services would be needed. When you kill the doctor, you virtually kill the community he serves. This is true for many of our rural villages. In fact, today there are more than 600 municipalities all over the country, which are without a doctor.

Last Friday, March 10, Dr. Dreyfuss Perlas, 31, was laid to rest in his hometown in Aklan. In the Code of Ethics of the Philippine Medical Association, a physician is referred to as a “friend of mankind.” Doctor Perlas was a friend of mankind who served where and when it counted most.

Somehow the story of Doctor Perlas brought to mind an international medical humanitarian organization that lately has been in the news because of attacks on their facilities in various parts of the world. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has served over a million migrants and refugees for whom government medical care is nonexistent.

In 1999, Médecins Sans Frontières won the Nobel Peace Prize. In accepting the award, Dr. James Orbinski, its president, said: “Humanitarian action is more than simple generosity, simple charity. It aims to build spaces of normalcy in the midst of what is abnormal.”

So much of the Mindanao countryside is presently in a state of abnormalcy. We must encourage building spaces of normalcy for its people. Gentle giants like Doctor Perlas are part of the effort.

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TAGS: Doctors to the Barrios, Dreyfuss Perlas, Inquirer Opinion, Ramon Farolan, Reveille
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