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A good doctor

/ 04:02 AM May 18, 2020

Since childhood, I knew about the murder of physician Dr. Remberto “Bobby” dela Paz, as my activist parents had been acquainted with two family members at the time. Doctor Dela Paz, who had served in towns in Samar with his wife Dr. Sylvia dela Paz, witnessed how poverty and abuse of local citizens plagued communities during the Marcos dictatorship. They attended to the sick, at times for free, and taught basic health education to their communities.

Their activities later led them to be suspected of ties to the New People’s Army, and labeled as subversives. While in his clinic in Catbalogan on April 23, 1982, he was assassinated by gunshot and passed away the next day. My father was asked to design a poster for a fundraiser soon after the murder. He and Dr. Juan Escandor, who was also brutalized and murdered, were my doctor-heroes.

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There are several tributes to Doctor Dela Paz in the Inquirer archives. The book “Press Freedom Under Siege: Reportage that Challenged the Marcos Dictatorship,” published last year, features an article by Sheila Coronel from the Philippine Panorama in 1982, that explores the events of the brutal murder as well as the family’s pursuit for justice afterward. These accounts write with somber clarity about how the couple’s quiet, generous service in towns of Samar eventually led to them being targeted. I do not presume at closeness nor do I want to reduce the doctor’s legacy to a trite message; these sources would give a better picture of the doctor’s impact on public health and Philippine society. I mention Doctor Dela Paz now, despite never having known him, because his story was always my reminder that health care can never truly be apolitical—a reminder that the medical profession needs from time to time.

Recently, the Association of Philippine Medical Colleges-Student Network released a statement on the shutdown of ABS-CBN. It caused a kerfuffle in a corner of the internet where social media savvy doctors, young and old, have found platforms to raise their voices and express opinions. (What would Doctor Dela Paz have done with such a platform?) Some doctors applauded the statement, citing the multifactorial nature of health, and discussing the impact of the ABS-CBN shutdown on employment, access to free information, and so on. Others argued that, not being engineering or law experts, doctors are not in the best position to make such statements. Discussion was welcome. Then there were those who argued that doctors should remain “neutral” and “apolitical” in the face of non-health issues.

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It’s discouraging to see so many doctors, both young and old, take such stances, as though non-health-care political decisions have no impact on the landscape of health. The pursuit of an equitable, functioning health care system is not one that can be divorced from the problem of the other ills that plague society. This column recently wrote about “Ang Kwento ni Rosario,” a case study that illustrates the social determinants of health and the stumbling blocks that the sick poor encounter in accessing basic health care.

Not every physician is called to fill the street with protest. In a pandemic, the first priority of every health worker after all is to attend to the urgent needs of the sick. But the idea that we can remain neutral in the face of systemic injustice is a comfortable illusion that betrays the ideals of the profession. It fails to see our patients in their true context—products of a failed system consumed by poverty, unemployment, poor access to health education and basic resources, and so on—all of which are products of political decisions which might seem remote from our clinics and operating rooms. Medicine cannot endorse a single political ideology, nor would it be justified in endorsing individual personalities, but the principles of medical ethics might suffice to guide our choices and raise our voices: beneficence, non-maleficence, a respect for autonomy, and justice.

“I am a doctor,” Doctor Dela Paz reportedly once said, “and the only thing that I should fear is not being a good one.” But he clearly believed that a “good” doctor does not limit his practice of medicine to prescriptions and operations, but devotes himself to the overall health of his community. This is not an invitation to take up arms now. It’s a reminder that in administrations and political climates such as ours, quiet, honest, generous, holistic service is radical. It’s a reminder that to be a physician is a special obligation to more than the body, but to the society, community, and beyond.

Dr. Sylvia dela Paz, in the Philippine Panorama article, summarized it eloquently:

“…you must make a choice. If you remain uninvolved, you must accept the consequences, including enduring life in an unjust society and even bequeathing it to your children. Or you can choose to be committed to changing that society for the better.”

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