Nationalism and medicine | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Nationalism and medicine

Last week, I was supposed to join a panel for a symposium of the Philippine Association of Community Health Educators with the topic: How do we instill nationalism in the hearts of our medical students?

I was excited about the symposium, seeing an opportunity to remind educators that nationalism should not be something limited to history classes. Often enough, we educators forget how abstract nationalism can be, and how we need to go beyond thinking and intellectualizing about nationalism and make it something we feel and keep and nourish deep in our hearts.


Because of an emergency, I was not able to make it to the panel, but I quickly emailed some thoughts for the panel to pick up on. I wanted to avoid the rhetoric about learning to look to the past so we don’t stumble on our way to the future (paraphrasing Rizal), so I zeroed in on an exercise we do at the UP College of Medicine, where we send students out to the “Quiapo Medical Center,” meaning the Quiapo Church area, to look at the health-related stuff sold there.

It’s a way to make our medical students — who are often from upper-class families, cut off from the everyday realities of our country and our people — realize that there’s another medical system out there.


I did remind panelists to make sure not to fall into the trap of exoticism: Oh, how quaint Filipino traditional medicine is. It is quaint, it has some effectiveness, but when all is said and done, our people deserve more, except that poverty leaves them with few choices—medicinal plants, for instance, that mainly “work” because people urinate more and feel better temporarily.

Then there are the assorted amulets with all kinds of claims, including taming the anger of employers (“pangpaamo ng boss,” one vendor told me). And the abortifacients, most of which don’t work, and those that are truly risky.

Nationalism is recognizing the value of what we have, from resources to traditions and values. But nationalism, too, is recognizing that our people deserve more, much more. To stop with documentaries and stories about the exotic stuff you can buy in Quiapo is to fall into the trap of poverty porn, films that win awards by displaying our misery and our despair.

It is important to “connect the dots” when we send students out for community exposure or immersion. For our future doctors, it should help them realize how dehumanizing poverty can be, and how they become oppressive, too, when they overcharge, or when they prescribe useless and inappropriate medicines.

Medical students get lectures on the history of medicine, but many schools do not discuss Rizal as a role model, a physician who saw beyond illnesses and who ended up opening a school while in exile in Dapitan. I suspect if he had more years to actually keep the school going, we would have found another revolutionary side to him, with lessons for education and educators.

There have been other Filipino health professionals who gave up their lives for the nation and the people: Bobby de la Paz and Johnny Escandor are the most frequently mentioned, both killed during martial law.

At the Philippine General Hospital compound, there is a Quisumbing Hall. I wonder how many students know who that hall is named after. His full name was Honorato Lim Quisumbing, and he was a physician who, with other fellow doctors and nurses, continued to tend to patients at the Philippine General Hospital during the Battle of Manila in 1943. He was killed in the crossfire, actually by American fire, aged 25.


I am sure there were many more, physicians and nurses and other health professionals, who gave up their lives for the country, whether as martyrs or as people serving fellow Filipinos. Nationalism would become more real if we bring them back to life in our classrooms.

Similar initiatives need to be introduced for students in other degree programs, especially for the sciences and engineering. The rapid development of East Asian countries happened because their governments sent out droves of science and engineering students to train overseas. Some never went back home, but others did, giving up lucrative offers from western companies.

Today, we see China and Vietnam doing the same thing. Again, while they lose some of their scholars, many are intent on serving their home countries someday. Can we say as much about our own scientists and professionals?

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TAGS: medicine, Michael L. Tan, nationalism, Pinoy Kasi
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