Breaking a leg | Inquirer Opinion

Breaking a leg

12:03 AM August 30, 2016

DON’T EVER tell a friend to break a leg. If all you intend is to boost one’s morale, to inspire and make one pull off the greatest performance of one’s life, just say so. Fate might play a cruel joke and that old theater quip might just happen literally—and it’s the worst thing to happen to anyone.

My fear of breaking a leg began decades ago, in August 1995, when our mother took a spill and broke her leg in two places. Her entire leg had to be cast in cement, and the injury was quite extensive that the doctor recommended hip replacement surgery.

I’m not sure anymore if it was her injury or the experience of spending long hours at the Philippine Orthopedic Hospital that ultimately caused my extreme fear. I dreaded being in that hospital, starting from the time we rushed our mother to the emergency room and experienced the full shock of the human chaos that apparently occurs there every day—all that blood and gore, broken bones, people shouting, swearing at doctors and nurses and staff, even at their own families. The terrifying screams of children particularly gave me sleepless nights, and even when I would fall asleep, I would have terrible nightmares. I wake up wishing I would never have to sleep ever again or I might not awaken and die of fright in my sleep.

For six months my two sisters and I took turns keeping watch over our mother, sleeping by her bedside. Being the youngest and the only son, I was luckier than my sisters. One of them had to be with me whenever it was my turn to keep watch because of certain tasks that concerned the patient’s personal hygiene. You can imagine our difficulty—and I was not even the one cleaning up our mother myself.


Most of the time before and after her surgery, and during the recuperation period and therapy, our mother was completely helpless, rendered virtually immobile by the strange contraptions attached to her feet, waist and torso, which included metal bars screwed through her bones, weights hanging over her head, and everything else that was held together by a tangled web of rope.

The doctor would appear only at night, always seemingly in haste to leave, and completely ignoring us while giving instructions to the technician to remove or change the position of certain weights, or to tighten or loosen some screws ever so slightly.

There seemed to be an unwritten rule that the family members of patients should take care of keeping them clean because we were in the free ward. Fine. The problem was that some patients who had been abandoned by their kin would soil their bed, making the entire ward stink like hell. My mother would always be in a foul mood, cursing, throwing and breaking things she could lay her hands on. Who wouldn’t be in a state like hers? I feared that if she could just get up and walk, she would jump out of the window to end her misery. I probably would if I were in her place. I think she was given sedatives when her anger became uncontrollable.

The worst part was when we had to spend the yearend holidays at the ward. The family’s effort to act normal was a monumental failure because, tell me, how could one act normal in such a situation? We thought we could pretend we were home and enjoying our noche buena at the stroke of midnight, but no, we found out that not even a big appetite and the Christmas spirit could survive the ward. On New Year’s Eve, the firecracker victims came in with their bleeding and mangled body parts. There were all sorts of horrific injuries presented by victims of stray bullets and stabbing incidents. The ambulance sirens wouldn’t stop wailing. It was like being caught in a train wreck.


When finally our mother was discharged from the hospital mid-February of 1996, I vowed never to set foot on that place again. I was true to that vow for more than 20 years—until yesterday, when I was asked to notarize the affidavit of desistance of a shooting victim. I would have forgotten about those six months I spent with my family at the hospital ward, but now I can hardly believe that I am actually writing about it, reliving the horror of those days, hoping it would help unburden me of my deep-seated fear.

Nothing much has changed: The same smell lingered, which my sister once described as part-antiseptic and part-feces. The same deathly screaming haunted the emergency room. I felt sorry for the people who had to be there, the patients who had to endure all sorts of indignity, and the doctors, nurses and staff who were no less than heroic in the performance of duty.


When I saw the patient, he stared at me with ghostly eyes that pierced through me. I took the cold bony hand and pressed the thumb against the stamp pad and then on the affidavit because he was just too weak, too close to death, to even lift a finger to sign the paper. His wife, who was watching over him in the ward, assured me that the patient knew and understood the meaning of the document when he was still relatively conscious. Finally, I had my picture taken with the patient holding the day’s issue of the Inquirer, as proof of life to be shown to the court.

I rushed to get away, hating myself for breaking my promise never to return to that hospital ward ever again. The place that was meant to fix broken bodies had ended up breaking my heart and my spirit.

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Adel Abillar is a private law practitioner with a small office in Quezon City where, he says, “I alternate between being boss and messenger.” He obtained his law and prelaw degrees from Manuel L. Quezon University and the University of Santo Tomas, respectively.

TAGS: Commentary, health, Hospital, medical, opinion

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