Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doctor and patient, barefoot

The continued unjust and immoral detention of the 43 health workers now languishing in the hands of the military for more than a month now salvaged the thankless job of community health workers. It reminds us that those who care for and extend services in a voluntary capacity to the victims of injustice are threatened and will experience the brute force of the Arroyo government like what happened to the 43.

For where in the world can you find health workers arrested, detained and tortured en-masse? And where in the world can you find those responsible for the gruesome act awarded with military medals?

It is simply incomprehensible to think of arresting a single health worker whose training and mission in life is to help the sick and aid the dying. The Arroyo regime arrested 43!

In our country where majority of the peasantry haven’t meet a doctor or any medical practitioner, the role of community health workers or barefoot doctors provides a sigh of relief. They are not just called barefoot doctors for lack of training in ‘formal’ medical school. Literally, they are. And those with formal training usually end up barefoot, literally, in the communities they served.

They represent various communities and sectors without medical practitioners to assist them. In fact, they are a symbol of how our country ignored the health and safety condition of our people and their arrest threatened the already comatose condition of the country’s state of health which needs some sort of resuscitation.

And who will resuscitate?

Aside from the social impact the arrests of the 43 caused me, I am deeply disturbed since I knew one of the 43. And even if I don’t know anyone of them, as a community health worker myself, I am deeply affected because the commitment and sacrifices of those involved in community-based health programs are beyond compare.

Dr. Alex Montes is a 60 year old surgeon, worked in private hospitals in Manila and Cebu. But his commitment to the oppressed and exploited peoples, particularly the peasantry and workers, including the urban poor in the fishing community of Mactan Island, Cebu is visible and admirable. But people like them don’t necessary liked to be admired. For a commitment to the exploited is innate, you take away that commitment; you take away the essence of his being.

A soft-spoken and unassuming medical practitioner, I once worked with Dr. Montes on matters related to reproductive health and public health. Once, I visited Punta Engano in Lapu-lapu City, the people in the fishing community he and his group helped are not your typical ‘patients’. They understood the social dimensions of their health problems. They do not just receive medicines from their well-loved doctor; they received, too, ‘medicines’ for their social diseases which is more destructive.

Now, the ‘barefoot’ doctor, who wears only sleepers and pants in the community and mingles with fisher folks and ordinary people is detained, tortured and held incommunicado.

More than five years ago, I experienced pain in the middle of the mountains of Eastern Visayas. I was dehydrated with no enough food in-take and less water; I end up bed-ridden for a day after walking for a week. I thought I’d die in a place where monkeys and wild animals live for decades. Imagine myself moaning with indescribable pain like I was undergoing a heart bypass operation without anesthesia, intense shivering and vomiting with a few seconds interval while surrounded with fellow teenagers most of them peasant youth in the middle of the night.

I thought I’ll gasp my last then, but I survived, not just because of the commitment to go there but because one of the peasant youth that surrounded me was actually a trained community health worker, an acupuncturist. She did not finish her primary schooling which is common in peasant areas. Lately, I was informed that she committed suicide.

She applied more than 10 needles in the upper portion of my body particularly in my forehead and throat. I can’t say no, I needed to survive. After a few minutes I stopped vomiting, the shivering mellowed and the pain slowly subsides.

She may not be one of those arrested but people like her are detained, tortured and held incommunicado.

Not so far away several years ago, here in a first class province with surplus cash, somewhere in the municipality of Aloguinsan, Cebu, I experienced how a cancer patient slowly giving up her last breath with no available medical aid. She looks like a strong woman with no signs of pain, maybe only to show to her children, that parents, in particular mothers, are known to bear the pain, if only in deep silence. She was brought to the albularyo or quack doctor hoping to be healed.

I saw in her eyes the end for her is in the offing and she seems to agree with me. But you can’t see tears flowing, not even her little children, and not even her. They simply hope for the best. Under the biting heat of the sun, which added intense pain to her already sickly self, she was carried by two men for almost four kilometers, equally needy of health support, walking on hilly and grassy fields and hills just to meet a quack doctor.

The following day, since I just stayed a few meters away from their shack, a violet cartolena designed to look like a ribbon, adorned the unfinished house, and a white cloth serves as backdrop waiting for her to return home for the traditional nightly vigil for the dear departed.

Experienced like that made you realize the cruelty of the world you live in and examines the unjust society’s unequal distribution of wealth and resources. And now, the hated regime arrested the 43 whose day-to-day job to serve the community is needed and necessary for there are limited doctors, nurses and even midwife available. The irony is that we are one of the world’s biggest producers of medical professionals.

In a country where health practitioners and professionals are prepared, trained and encouraged (destined?) to work abroad to contribute to the country’s growing dependence on OFWs remittances in order for the local economy to survive, the only refuge the ailing population can look forward to ease their health related problems which is directly tied to the unjust social structure we are in is through community health workers whose mission in life is not just to cure the sick but to aid in the protracted struggle to end the unjust social system that brought diseases and too much suffering in our communities.

Free the 43 now!

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