There are mentors and there are mentors. There are tormentors too. If if one is lucky enough, he or she can have both in one package.
I was not meant to be a doctor. I wanted something more glamorous like interior designing, museum and art curating like my friend Maj, antique fabric restoration, going into archeology or astrophysics like my friend Luca or majoring in Medieval Literature like my friend Kate. Anything, anything that has something to do with ancient and outside of the confines of my thirty square meter of clinic space which makes me claustrophobic.
But then my parents were too poor to send me to a course I wanted we had no choice but to go to medical school. It is ironic I know. But that is the story.
After having graduated from high school, I took a scholarship exam and an entrance exam to the country’s premier state university known for its quality education and some covert but palpable intellectual conceit. As far as my husband is concerned, there is only one premier university in the country – his. The same one that produced both heroes and villains, dictator and victims, politicians screaming like banshees and fools with their cache of arms and gold. And there were desaparecidos too. The searching and the grieving continue until now.
I passed both tests.
So my Mama and my spinster Aunt took a flight to Manila to accompany me in enrolling to the university. They thought it was the most prudent thing to do. I was just out of high school and came from a small time, small town background – the big city would not be kind to a naive, waif of a woman like me.
Like the fate of all poorer relations, we were housed by richer relations in an upscale village where some movie stars lived. He was a General in the intelligence agency of the ruling regime. When my Uncle the General learned about the purpose of my trip, he was averse to the idea. He opposed with vehemence that must have sent my Mama and Aunt quaking in their seats.
‘That place is not meant for a young woman like her’, he said, as he put down his pipe, his resolute gaze thrown towards my Mama and my Aunt.
As they were talking, I busied my eyes looking awed at the chandeliers over high ceilings, the faux damask covered Louis XIV armchair and equally faux Louis XIV armoire in the study and the art works hanging on the wall and the antique Persian rug on the floor. Whenever I heard a faint voice of protest, I bowed down my head and twiddled with my thumbs.
‘There’s so much unrest. All those protests. All those indignation rallies. All those street parliamentarians! All those radicals! All those LEFTISTS!’ He uttered each word in careful staccato, reserving the last word for the harshest fortissimo. It was grating to the ears.
Suddenly my Uncle asked me to leave the room and I left the three of them and their murmurings to themselves.
I would conjecture what they might have talked about. I might get pregnant. I might be indoctrinated. I might join a sorority. I might go to the mountains, join a revolutionary movement and be named Comrade Barbie . If I did not die in the armed struggle, my dossier could become as thick as wads of cash stashed by the dictator in a Swiss bank and would certainly be even thicker if I survived the water torture.
Whatever it was, I knew it was not good news for me. My Mama trusted that my Uncle the General was an insider into the underpinnings of a decaying and dying dictatorship. We packed our bags the following day and went back home. It was an excruciatingly painful journey for me.
Instead, I went to a private university ran by Jesuits.
Just like the premier state university, this was also a premier private university, along with its brother university in Manila, only that I cannot enumerate what had become of their graduates because my husband teaches in the College of Law and one of the rules he has for me is to never bite the hand that feeds him.
Unlike my well to do and more comfortable classmates, I did not have extra to allow me to traipse occasionally to the cinema, so I became a regular in the library where I would surreptitiously sneak in carrot sticks for lunch, my mouth, my chewing and my esophagus swallowing concealed by hard covers of huge art books.
The library, in the prehistoric era of the internet, was the whole wide world to me. It was like my web and I was the tenacious spider. I was such a regular that student assistants trusted me enough with lending reserved books and beyond the ten books allotted at any given time. I always returned books on time because I wouldn’t want to pay the fines.
There I would devour books on economics that explained what brought developmental debacle to our country, books from Amnesty International chronicling which regimes and long running dictatorships condoned all forms of unimaginable torture to extract information from prisoners and captives and was puzzled why the Philippines was not on the list. I read Kant, Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust, St. Augustine, St. Anselm and St. Antoine De Exupery. My reading menu was varied. I could endure Plath and Plato, struggle over low intensity conflict, Liberation Theology and Lumen Gentium.
I also scanned, countless times all the art books from Boticelli to Titian, from baroque to modern. And some appreciation for not so mainstream Frida Kahlo and her mono-brow, Diego Garcia and Jackson Pollock.
That was how I survived my very spartan four years in college.
Going to medical school became the least of my problems. A German Jesuit priest, bless his soul, had heard of my story from the parishioners where he said Sunday mass in my village and told me to apply for a scholarship for medical school, with his endorsement.
I faced the stoic, stone faced, selection committee who pored over every document I submitted, doubted its authenticity and probed the authenticity of my intellect. That was the easy part. The more difficult one for them was how to spot rich bright people pretending to be poor. Unlike cheetahs, they wear no spots.
That’s the story how a poor girl ended up in medical school.
That was how I met Alex.
He was a legend. Long before I stepped into medical school his life and story along with his eccentricities like utter disregard if he forgot to zip his fly were the staple of medical students who went to our college library to study. I was not eavesdropping but I couldn’t help but overhear. My interest was piqued.
Alex was our professor in Anatomy and Histology. He had a commanding presence about him, tall, dark, Jack Nicholson wickedness meets Anthony Hopkins sensibility kind of look, old school, nearing seventy and smoked like the cliched chimney. He could have consumed a whole pack of Champion in one class. He was an icon we revered.
We were a class of seventy three. He started each class with a roll call and his basso profundo would send some inattentive classmate jolting and would be wilting from his look of derision or disdain. Either which one was not a good thing. The student had been ‘marked’. He would be called during class recitation where he, along with us would be collectively castigated for our, his favorite words, ‘abysmal ignorance’. ‘Seventy three people. So quiet. I’d drop a coin into your heads and it wouldn’t make a sound. You know why? Because there’s nothing there!’ And he would either grin or chuckle, the kind that would resonate in the room and then light a cigarette and ask at random those sitting on the front row to erase the black board.
And always his question would be ‘What do you see?’
I was in medical school in the era of projectors and transparency acetates. Now it’s different. I stumbled upon my Powerpoint Presentation in the internet uploaded by one enterprising student he and must be earning dimes and nickels from the paid ad sites.
Alex however never used technology. He only had his cigarettes and spectacles with him when he entered the auditorium. The class president made sure there were enough white and yellow chalks in boxes, and red, yellow, blue and green chalks that were tossed on an abaca tray.
Alex never brought along his notes. Everything he illustrated and lectured was from memory. He must have been eating textbooks for breakfast and made pillows out of books and all the texts diffused into his senses by morning.
He would illustrate the heart and its chambers using the colored chalks. Blue for the right ventricle, red for the left ventricle and yellow for coronary arteries that surround it. He did the same color coded illustrations for his class in histology. Yellow for the signet ring adipose tissue, gray and white for the liquefactive necrosis, flaming red for skeletal muscles. After each drawing, he would call on someone from class and ask ‘What do you see?’
In spite of his stiff demeanor in the classroom, he was voluble outside of it. Whenever he would see me and my room mate walking the dirt road going up the little slope in the Medical School Drive, he would give us a ride. Never mind that his old maroon Toyota Corolla reeked of smoke that stung and stuck to our hair and uniforms. He was kind enough to open the windows to let off the stink and the mosquitoes.
Once the class had a Christmas party and he was invited as guest. It was held in the house of the brightest and prettiest girl in class who sang Anita Baker’s ‘Sweet Love or Rapture, I couldn’t remember now.When Alex was called to say a few words, he started with a roll call. This time we were laughing. He narrated to us the story of the early part of his career, how as a surgeon he saved lives when he was stationed at a remote town east of our city. He talked about opera. He talked about his near misses in the operating room and on the operating table. He emphasized bedside manners. And that no amount of technology could ever replace a good history taking and physical examination. He talked about patients paying him in kind like eggs, chicken, piglets, and vegetables in a basket. He took them all. He never turned down a patient, paying or otherwise. He was a great man. He was a renaissance man.
I was a medical resident when I heard of Alex’s confinement in the ICU because of a heart attack. The story that circulated was that when he was relieved of the chest pain, the recidivist and incorrigible smoker in him asked for a light for the stick of cigarette already between his lips.
And then there was the story of his self medicating for tuberculosis which turned out to be lung cancer. He died soon after.
I am not writing this as an anti-smoking campaign. I won’t even stop anyone reading this from smoking if you feel alluded to. It’s your life. I’m basically live and let live.
I write this because this is one of those days when I was stalled in traffic. In the back seat I look back when I was a girl out of high school, with my head down, twiddling with my thumb. I make an inventory of people who matter from that time since.
Today I happen to look back to my days in medical school and I remember the greatest mentor that school could possibly have had in its history, in my lifetime or the next. He will go down in memory as the greatest mentor who ever lived. He was my mentor.
His name was Alex.