From chicken oil to cortisone
With each batch of the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health forced to listen to my lecture on medicine and history lies my hope that one would, even as a hobby, follow up on my leads and write on how disease has affected the course of our history. Cholera epidemics in the 19th century killed off many people, or generated hysteria leading to the massacre of foreigners who were thought to have poisoned the Pasig River. How have rats spread disease from bubonic plague in the past to leptospirosis today?
I have notes on illness in the lives of our heroes. It is surprising that Rizal did not write much about his own state of health except when he had a bad cough that he misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. However, his family wrote detailed letters from home that included descriptions of illness, death and dying during a cholera epidemic that swept the Philippines in the 1880s heralded by Halley’s Comet.
Marcelo del Pilar’s letters to his wife are the most detailed with regard to his state of health, and it would be interesting to see what a medical doctor will see from his complaints of “reuma” or “sipon.” In May 1889 he described what appeared to be a stiff neck cured with chicken oil:
“Aua ng Dios ay uala akong sakit: nang linggong nagdaan ay nagising ako ng sa pagkilos ko’y naipaniin ko ang ulo ko sa dakong kaliua ay tila may nalinsad na ugat o lamad ay ilang arao na hindi ako makalingon at masakit ang kabiak kong batok at paypay na kaliua; hinihintay ko sanang ma-alis ng kusa ang may-sakit: isang gabing doroon ako sa Café Colon ay hinatulan ako ng isang mozo na pahiran ko raw ng mantika ng inahing manok at saka ko balutin ang liig ko; siya kong ginawa ng gabi ring iyon ay pagka-umaga’y nakakita na ako ng ginhawa: pinatingnan ko kay Canong [Dr. Galicano Apacible], ngunit hindi ko na nagawa ang hatol ni Canong at gumaling na sa mantikang manok lamang.”
Historians always wish people recorded what they saw in writing because that is the primary source of history. During the last years of the dictatorship there were many concerns and rumors about then President Ferdinand Marcos’ health, but there were no regular medical bulletins issued. Thus, we had to tease the truth from people who had met with Marcos, like Sir John Addis, the British ambassador to the Philippines in the 1960s. After leaving the diplomatic service, Addis became a consultant to a British bank that sent him on regular trips to China; he would then visit Manila, where he met with Leandro and Cecilia Locsin who shared his passion for Oriental ceramics. While in Manila, Addis was usually received by Marcos. His report of their meeting in September 1981 reads:
“I think Marcos has skin cancer and will not survive long… Natural death seems more likely than assassination. He scarcely ventures outside the closely guarded palace. The rumors of his skin cancer persist. I observed him closely during my half-hour meeting with him. His complexion is darker than last year, his face heavier and more puffy, the eyes mere slits. There are what appear to be two nodules on his right cheek. He was suppressing yawns, which could be explained by the lateness of the hour (nearly two o’clock) and the many callers he had already received that morning. But I felt there was a real decline in the liveliness of his mind… A couple of years ago he would have got to the point before I had finished each sentence and would have been plying me with keen questions. This time he seemed to be groping to understand. He did get the point and was interested, but it was a slow apprehension, not characteristic of the Marcos I have known.”
Aside from this face-to-face meeting, Addis gathered more secondary information from the Forbes Park set he had known from his posting in Manila two decades earlier. From other sources Addis gathered “that all the stories about his illness (i.e., lupus/cortisone) are false and that he is merely suffering from a skin allergy, aggravated by sunshine when he plays golf. That must be the approved counter-story, whatever the truth.”
Barely a year later, in August 1982, Addis was back in Manila and was told that Marcos was not receiving any callers, prompting him to report:
“There is general agreement among my friends in Manila that Marcos’ appearance has improved since the beginning of the year. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Manuel Collantes, told me in strict confidence (‘I’ll tell you a secret—don’t tell anyone’) that about the New Year [of 1982] the Chinese sent Marcos a doctor from Peking. Collantes admitted that Marcos had been looking a bit puffy and said that that had probably been caused by too much medication or the wrong drugs. He said that since the Chinese doctor came, Marcos has been his old self again, better than at any time since 1965. I asked if the Chinese doctor had come for a single consultation or was staying on. Collantes said that he is remaining in Manila to look after Marcos.
“This story, from the palace’s man at the Foreign ministry, confirms that there has been something seriously wrong with Marcos’ health. It fits in with the reports that he has lupus, and suggests that he has now been taken off cortisone. It is also of interest that Peking thinks it worthwhile to save Marcos and perpetuate the Marcos regime.”
When Philippine history from a medical viewpoint is written, it promises to be an engaging read.
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