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Sick

12:05 AM November 29, 2011

When I was a child, I liked hospitals. I liked being confined in an air-conditioned room while wearing a hospital gown and being fed via dextrose tube. I liked lying down all day and night on a comfortable bed while watching television. I liked getting what I wanted to eat, having a special straw to sip water and getting special attention from my parents. I liked it because I wanted to skip classes.

My siblings and I were enrolled in a private Catholic school in Quezon City at the time. I didn’t like going to class, and I always tried to find ways to be sent home. I would pretend to be sick. A little cough, a little sniff, a little dizziness and a little rub on the armpit and neck always did the trick.

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I would call the attention of my teacher and ask to be excused so that I could go to the clinic. There I would dig into my bag of tricks so that I would be sent home. When the school nurse took my temperature, I would rub my armpit where she put the thermometer so that the friction would generate some heat and she would believe I had a fever. It never failed. The school nurse would either ask me to rest in the clinic or send me home where I could watch animé the rest of the day.

Then our family got into financial problems. My siblings and I were forced to transfer from our beautiful school to a public elementary school in Bulacan.

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The school was far different from my old school. I had to go inside the classroom barefoot so that the floor would not get dirty. I had to share a school desk with three classmates, although it was built for just three pupils. Our books were outdated and many of their pages were missing. The restrooms were appalling and we had to fetch water from a well. And there was no clinic inside the school. I stopped my please-send-me-home-I’m-sick gimmick.

I was able to study in a private college by earning a scholarship. My school catered to children of middle- and upper-class families. And that was the reason  I was able to get into some of the country’s most modern hospitals.

Once a classmate was confined at The Medical City. My jaw dropped when we entered the hospital. To me it looked more like a five-star hotel.

The same thing happened when I first went to St. Luke’s Medical Center. It wasn’t like any of the hospitals where I had been confined. Not a bit. Anyone would kill for the kind of accommodations and service it offered.

When I was working in the House of Representatives, I came down with a fever for a couple of days. Upon the advice of friends, I went to the clinic. It was a small clinic, but well-equipped and adequately staffed. Several doctors were available for consultation, medicines could be secured from the  pharmacy, simple medical exams and tests were done right away. And everything was for free.

I got my first taste of socialized health service and I found it sweet. Truly some of the  best things in life are libre.

One time, I came down with a fever for four consecutive days. I had to see a doctor since there was an outbreak of  dengue. I went to the Philippine General Hospital.

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I knew PGH was the biggest government hospital catering to the medical needs of poor Filipinos, but I never expected to see what I found there.

The emergency room was already packed with people, and there were still scores of patients outside waiting for their turn to be examined. Patients just came and went one after the other. Some were lying on the plastic benches in the receiving area or on the cold, tiled floor. Accident victims were bleeding while waiting to be treated. Some patients who had asthma were gasping for air. Cadavers bound in white cloth were being taken out in front of the waiting patients.  The doctors and nurses were clearly overwhelmed.

After the doctor examined me, he referred me to the out-patient department saying there was no more room in the hospital. He didn’t have to explain any further.

Months later during a violent dispersal of a mass action by the police, I was hit on the head.  I found myself walking again to the PGH and being welcomed by chaos.

There was a long line of furious relatives and friends of patients confined in the hospital who were angrily demanding that they be allowed inside so that they could watch over their sick. The ward to which I was sent had a capacity of 30 to 40 patients, but there were at least 100 of us there. Some patients used stretchers as beds, while others slept on the cold floor without mattresses or pillows.

Later I would learn that at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, parents would leave their personal belongings such as mobile phones, watches, tricycles to guarantee payment of their sick children’s hospital bills.

Unimaginable things happen in government hospitals. In a place where the sick are supposed to get well, they get worse. Our health care system is sick.

I understand that in the United Kingdom, patients don’t spend a single centavo for their treatment. Hospitals hire cashiers but they are there to give patients transportation money so that they can go home safely. In France, doctors go to private homes to attend to their patients even in the middle of the night. In Canada, health care is free. In Cuba, doctors go from house to house to check on the health of citizens.

All these are possible because their  governments subsidize health care. They allocate needed funds to provide optimum health care for their people. A cut in the budget for social services is enough to trigger riots, like what happened in some European countries recently. Tony Benn, a former member of the British Parliament, warned that a revolution would take place if such services are taken away.

In the proposed national government budget for 2012, only P44.4 billion is allocated for public health services. This is way below the recommendation of the World Health Organization, which is 5 percent of GNP or P440 billion. In this year’s budget, there is no outlay for capital expenditures, like the expansion of government hospitals. The allocation for maintenance and other operating expenses was frozen while the budget for personal services was cut, despite the obvious need to hire more health workers. And as with educational institutions, there are plans to privatize government health workers.

I would not be surprised if, like what happened in London and other parts of  Europe, mass protests will break out because of government’s failure to provide basic social services.

Romina Astudillo, 22, is secretary general of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines-NCR.

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