‘Kilig’ and trembling
There are unwritten rules at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health. Aside from not bringing home cadaver parts and not wearing the school uniform while on a binge after exams, medical students are discouraged (forewarned, advised and overtly disheartened) from entering into any form of romantic relationship. No girlfriends or boyfriends allowed. And as a preventive measure, no crushes, no MUs (mutual understandings), no getting all cheesy and mushy along the way. Simply put, in medical school, you date, you fail.
Tragic? Actually, it’s strategic. Med school is much like a 7/11. We study 24/7 and try to limit our lives to the bare essentials, fitting just enough social interaction between the shelves to keep us sane. Complicating things further by asking to love and be loved is just stacking up with more than what we can sell.
Like a 7/11, being a medical student also comes with a much higher price. We sacrifice sleep and social life for test scores that only break our ego and hopes in life. We swallow our pride, seeing our batch mates grow their paychecks and drive their own cars while we commute and beg for “allowance” still. By the time we graduate in our late 20s, our friends have already married or celebrated their children’s first birthdays. And we wallow in the sidelines—still single, always the ninong and never the dad. Most of all, our additional years in school cost our parents more than P100,000 per semester (that’s P1 million at the end of our studies!) and an extra five years out of retirement.
But we take in all this wholeheartedly, in the name of a noble profession and the privilege to heal. Throwing all that away for something that can promise neither social mobility nor forever is not only impractical; it is also unjust in the face of poverty and in these times of economic disparities.
So it’s all right to share cups of coffee with Bates or Henry, go to bed with Harrisons and Williams, sleep with Nelson and Schwartz as much as we want. Care to date Robbins? By all means, fall in love with your books, just not another human being. You might as well end up a heartless witch or a bitter monk, but at least you’ll survive medical school.
And surviving medical school was all I ever wanted, what I psyched myself to do from the very beginning. Until I met Lou.
Funny thing was, I did not even know Lou was my classmate until six months after we started sharing a classroom. It was a fine afternoon at the dissection lab. I was carefully rummaging inside the cadaver’s pericardial sac to get a good feel of the heart, the aorta, pulmonary arteries, and vena cavae. Retracting the heart to finally detach it from its major vessels and the mediastinum, I reached for the scalpel. But then, another hand had already picked it up and was now offering it to me. I looked up.
It was Lou. Vigilant not to nick any structure while exploring, I had barely noticed her enter the room and make her way beside me. I took the scalpel from her and for a second our hands touched, separated only by our thin latex gloves.
And that’s when I began to tremble, as if a bolt of electricity had shot through me. Kilig (Thrilled) to the bones, was it? I could say it was tagos mula buto hanggang puso (through the bones and to the heart) even.
May I watch? Lou asked, smiling. I stared at her, immobilized and speechless for an awkward moment. Sure, I finally managed to say. And then I proceeded to cut—clumsily, a little too low, not suave at all, and with less panache than I had intended.
Needless to say, I broke my assigned heart that day. But like a shot of epinephrine, Lou made the one inside me, once dead and adynamic, beat to life again.
The kilig is lasting and strangely familiar. At first it felt warm and tender, like eating noodles on a cold rainy day. Some days it is distracting, like an itch of unknown origin. But it is also liberating, like being reborn into a different man, a changed man.
I now smile more, laugh more, even enjoy my food more. Examining patients and taking their histories used to be a requirement I would gladly miss. Now, I look forward to days when I can connect with people, listen to their stories, their dreams, and even their latest gossip about Celebrities X and Y.
I’ve begun to see things differently, too. No longer is it that patients are merely diseases or charts of symptoms and findings but, rather, people with faces—faces that pout or frown at my very presence but also smile back when I do. They move a lot when I tell them not to, ask endless questions, and forget to take their medicines all the time. But they, too, have held my hand, just as I have held theirs, and assured me that despite my faults as a student, someday I will become a damned good doctor.
My grades can still be a lot better, yes. But my academics now mean less to me than what a crying pediatric patient can teach me about trust, patience, and kindness. In many more ways, I am changing. I have become more human (and humane) before I realized it. All because one fine day, another human being’s hand touched mine, and I trembled.
It’s said that we doctors are men and women who play God and that we have forgotten what it means to tremble. We have forgotten to tremble in fear of what we do not know and maybe never will. Because of our skepticism, we no longer tremble in wonder of what escapes our explanations and dismantles our arrogance and pride. We have overworked ourselves, day in and day out, and so much so that we have forgotten to tremble in joy. And we have forgotten to tremble in love.
But it also remains that we cannot heal what we cannot feel. The greatest ailment afflicting our patients is not disease but mostly fear. Healing our patients, therefore, takes more than just prescribing medicines but also acknowledging this fear, addressing it, and sometimes, feeling it, too.
We likewise cannot claim to possess all the answers and cures. As a surgeon once said, “We simply dress the wound. But God heals the patient.” Past the spectrum of our vision, above the range of our hearing and beyond the limits of our senses, medical miracles do happen. And when they do, we must humble ourselves to tremble in wonder and in faith.
Most of all, we cannot give what we do not have. And in my two years in med school, I have come to discover that the greatest thing we can give our patients is not a pill, not even a state-of-the-art procedure, but service defined by compassion and love. But how are we to heal with love when we have closed ourselves to this love? When we stand to lose all the kilig that life offers?
Thank God I met Lou.
Gelo Apostol, 20, is a third year student at the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health.
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