|Arturo B. Rotor|
|The Men Who Play God
The new hospital is situated nearly in the center of a tract of land bounded by Calle Padre
Faura on the north, Taft Avenue on the east, Calle Herran on the south and the weather
observatory on the west. This tract contains nearly 11 hectares (27 acres) and is known
as 'Medical Center' on account of the Bureau of Science and the College of Medicine and
Surgery being located on the same lot. It is most conveniently located, being well within
the city limits.
--History and Description of the Philippine General Hospital,
compiled by John E. Snodgrass, M.D., under the direction of the Acting Director of Health,
Dr. Carroll Fox, October, 1911
There are no more trolley lines on Taft Avenue today, and the Weather Observatory had moved out long ago. Calle Herran is now Pedro Gil Street, but Taft Avenue is still named after the first American civil governor. The place and scene described by Doctor Snodgrass are still remembered by a few white-haired and wrinkled senior citizens. They tell you that in their time it was a short stroll down acacia-lined, tranquil, well-kept streets to the seashore, where you joined the oldtime residents of Ermita and Malate to wait for the sunset on Manila Bay. Or, for ten centavos, you could take a horse-drawn caruaje for a leisurely ride to the Luneta and Intramuros. Ermita was the exclusive residential section of Manila; this was where the remaining dons, dofias and their Spanish-Filipino progeny elected to stay; here they mourned the end of the Spanish Empire and waited for what the future would bring. With a reminiscent smile and a far-away look in their eyes, the oldtimers describe to you the Spanish-style chalets that clustered around Ermita Church, the lovely señoritas that once in a while could be glimpsed sitting in the trellised balconies and, above all, the heavenly peace and quiet that permitted you to hear the sharp screech of the bats coming out of their belfry at twilight, and to detect the unmistakable tang of the evening breeze, long before you saw the surf breaking against the moored fishing boats off Pasay beach. In such an environment, convalescence was pleasant and speedy. There was unpolluted, invigorating air to fill the lungs, cool tranquil nights to encourage sound sleep, restful, uneventful days for strolling in the hospital grounds or sitting down and dozing under great spreading acacia trees.
Not any more. Completely changed in character and purpose is the district once considered ideal hospital environment. Taft Avenue is the main traffic artery connecting old Manila to the burgeoning new towns and cities south; through Padre Faura and Herran the discos, beer houses and motels of the Tourist Belt link up with the slums, tenements and estero shanties of Paco. Taft Avenue, as a national road, must carry the traffic that is built up by the thousands of students spewing out of the schools, colleges, universities, boarding houses that line it on both sides, the hundreds of merchants and peddlers who buy and sell their tomatoes and kangkong at San Andres and Paco markets, and the uncounted mob of employees who must get to and depart from their desks and cubicles at City Hall, Foreign Affairs, and other offices.
There is only one contrivance that can move this mass of humanity, the internal combustion engine. If you stand long enough in front of the Philippine General Hospital, you will see every model, make and variant of this wondrous invention, from scooters to ten-ton trucks, from World War II jeeps to seventy-passenger buses. At peak travel hours, which is before nine in the morning, to sunset, the combined cacophony of thousands of motors accelerating, horns blasting, tires screeching, reaches the one-hundred-twenty-decibel level. Above this basic din, a few more decibels are added by boy-peddlers touting cigarettes or sweepstakes tickets, and by bus conductors announcing their routes: "Siga-ril-yo! San Andres Bukid! Crossing! Vito Cruz!" The din and confusion are indescribable. This must. be what a mortally ill patient in delirium must go through; this must be the amorphous, unremitting jumble of hubbub, boom and barrage, without pattern or purpose or direction, that finally pushes the mind over the brink of sanity.
But this is the pulse beat of trade and commerce. This is the circulatory flow of men and ideas, reaching all levels, nurturing the organism, determining growth. This circadian rhythm of human activity rises like a quotidian fever during the day and returns to normal in the peace and quiet of the night. If you are a passenger in one of the buses or jeepneys, you have your moments of doubt that you could get past the hospital, for the line of vehicles in front of you seems solid. But it does move, even if only at the speed of a few feet every so often. Once in a while, however, all movement does stop, as when a fire engine from the nearby Paco station answers a call from somewhere in Pasay, or a police squad car, its sirens screaming and its turret fights flashing, comes shooting out of its headquarters in the Central Police Station at Isaac Peral. Then everything does stop, for that is the only way these emergency vehicles can get through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on both sides of the road-taking the middle lane, and weaving in and out of either lane.
All along the avenue facing the hospital are the shops and stores that cater to the needs and requirements of patients, particularly the indigent. Here are the drug stores, flower and gift shops, lunch counters; most are one-door, shoe-string operations, small and utilitarian, geared to the modest needs of the charity patients and the humble folk who visit them. Here you can purchase a spray of five daisies, or six tablets of penicillin, or one apple or mango. The sidewalk peddlers will sell you cigarettes by the stick, peanuts by the tablespoonful, ball pens, shoelaces. If you wish to bring to your sick relative in Ward 6 a year-old issue of Popular Komiks, you will find somebody along the sidewalks selling a pile of them. Or you can buy her a necklace of sampaguita.
You enter the hospital grounds from Taft Avenue, that is, if your car or taxi can detach itself from the traffic stream. It is easy if you are going south, but if you come from the opposite direction, then you have to cross Taft Avenue and that can be a problem. Once you enter the driveway, you begin to wonder whether you are lost. For, what used to be a lawn and garden is one vast parking lot, chock-full of the same vehicles that run outside. The grass is gone, and the white santans that line the driveways and the few narra trees left are yellow and shriveled, unable to exist in an environment rich with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and plain street dust. To the left is the garage, housing the ambulances and service cars and almost obscuring the narrow back entrance to the Out-patient Department. To the right is the Nurses' Home, which has managed to maintain its individuality and dignity against all odds. And in front of you is a gently inclining ramp up which you go to the main door. At last you are in the Philippine General Hospital, the temple of the men who play God.
The hospital was officially opened on September 1, 1910... On the following day, the
patients were transferred from Old Civil Hospital to the new structure. On June 30, 1911,
the nursing staff consisted of 18 American females, 5 American males, 69 female and 38
male pupil nurses and 3 graduate Filipina nurses
The Filipina nurses as a whole are a grand success. They are quiet, gentle, patient
and are making rapid progress along the line of proficiency. One very frequently hears patients
make the statement that they would as soon have a good Filipino nurse care for them as
Inside the temple, the atmosphere is somewhat subdued, if only in contrast to the bedlam outside. The guardians and keepers in their gowns or jackets go about their tasks and offices silently as befit their solemn work. Here they tell time differently. The day does not begin at sunrise and end at twilight; the day is a never-ending period of time conveniently divided into three shifts, seven to three, three to eleven, and eleven to seven. There is no beginning and no end. Miss Martinez comes in to take over Ward 6 from Miss de la Cruz, who just seven hours ago signed in as head nurse for the ward. It matters not whether it is Monday or Sunday, whether it is noon or midnight, the unvarying routine must go on. Fifty or sixty patients must have their pulse counted, their temperature taken, their breathing timed, Medicines must be given every two hours, or four, or continuously. Whether the patient ate his meal or not, whether he slept or tossed about is vital information and has to be recorded. For the nurse with her tray of pills and little glasses of liquid, stop watch, blood pressure apparatus, the day is long or short depending on how many new patients are admitted, how many need to have venoclysis or oxygen, how many have to be checked for vital signs every hour. In this manner, daylight dies into the twilight, and night breaks into dawn-and the seven o'clock shift arrives to take over.
The hospital will be named the Philippine General Hospital because it will be destined
principally for the use of the Filipino people. It will have the following departments:
Administrative, Surgical Operating Rooms, Kitchen, Dispensary, Nurses' Home, Pavilion
No. I (private rooms), Pavilion No. 2 (surgical cases), Pavilion No. 3 (medicine), Pavilion
No. 4 (children, medicine or orthopedics), Pavilion No. 5 (obstetrics).
"Does the patient understand English?" the professor asked.
"Yes, sir," the intern answered.
"Hm... Hm... Nurse, will you take the patient back to the ward?"
The wheelchair creaked softly, its hardened rubber wheels sliding with some difficulty on the concrete floor. The patient was a little puzzled; he looked expectantly at the circle of white-jacketed doctors, awaiting their advice or instructions. But nobody spoke; the silence hung like a heavy weight. And as he passed the last intern, the patient looked at him directly, and seemed to understand. He leaned back in his wheelchair, his head bowed.
As soon as he was out of sight, the group resumed the discussion.
"Well, let us summarize our findings in this case. Doctor Garcia, maybe you could start off."
"The patient was admitted about three weeks ago complaining of a mass in the abdomen, first noticed about two months ago. The mass is located in the right hypochondrium, roughly globular, minimally tender, not attached to surrounding tissue and as hard as stone. The patient has lost about eight pounds since admission."
"The important laboratory examinations are concerned with liver functions. The enzyme tests indicate both obstruction and destruction of liver cells. Icterus index is 120. "
"On September 23, a liver biopsy was done under local anesthesia. The pathologist reported hepatoma."
The professor looked around. "Is there any dissenting opinion? Can't we arouse some debate on this complicated case? What does the surgeon say? Dr. Perez?"
"I have gone over your data and double-checked a few tests. We observed that the jaundice is deepening. Bleeding time is now twelve minutes. Yesterday, in preparation for this conference I examined the patient again, and noticed a small gland in the left inguinal region. It is my opinion that this patient is not suitable for surgery."
"Can't we commute this death sentence? How about radiation? Cytotoxic drugs? Doctor Zamora, you have done some work on this. What do you think?"
"Without medicines, the patient has maybe three to five months left. With some of the newer anti-neoplastics, maybe eight to nine months. But I have gone over the locally available preparations and calculated that it would cost the patient between two hundred to four hundred pesos a day. This we must explain to the family before we start anything, if we decide to."
"Our cobalt machine is out of order and will require from four to six weeks to be put in operation again. Anyhow, I do not consider the patient a suitable subject. The side effects might be worse than the expected palliation."
The professor paused for a moment and appeared to be thinking deeply. Finally, he spoke, "Well, I guess that winds up our discussion of this interesting case. Doctor Mendoza, you can discharge the patient this afternoon."
The Philippine General Hospital will fulfill four distinct needs:
It will offer to the. general public exceptionally good facilities for the healing of
injuries and the curing of diseases.
It will assure to officers and employees of the Government who are entitled to have
medical or surgical care free of charge, a quality of attention seldom equaled... and never
It will offer the medical students exceptional facilities for practical instruction.
Finally, it will accomplish another very important work in the training of young
Filipino men and women as nurses.
The ambulance surgeon checked a pile of papers on his desk. Vacancies, medical, let's see, let's see... ah, one vacancy. One vacancy against three patients needing ternary care, three patients who had already been screened from a group of twenty-three by the health center, the provincial hospital, the dispensary physician, a resident. Selected among all the others because their illness could not be handled satisfactorily except with the facilities of the Philippine General Hospital. But he had only one vacant bed. To whom should he give it? The department's policy with regards to admission seemed to be clear-cut on paper. Admit the patient who is in most urgent need of hospitalization. Admit the patient whose clinical condition furnishes interesting material for study, investigation and research, on a lower priority. Do not admit the hopeless, for whom nothing can be done, no terminal cancer, advanced liver disease or contagious disease. Do not admit patients who can be treated at home, in the dispensary or in another hospital.
Now he had these three patients. One who was awaiting kidney transplantation; for him a kidney donor had been found. A young man with a rare blood disease for whom extensive studies and tests would have to be performed before blood transfusion with a hard-to-get blood type. A cardiac patient in whom all signs pointed to an impending crisis. Which one? He had checked each of the three personally and verified the diagnoses-all of them needed immediate hospitalization. Maybe he should check again and look more closely for a finding or symptom that would make one more serious than the other, more of an emergency case. But he had no time; there were other patients to be attended to in the other departments, and it was close to nightfall. Those who could not be admitted would have to be sent home soon.
He decided to call for help, ask the physician on duty to make the decision.
But the physician on duty was not of much help. He merely mentioned the fact that they already had three other cardiac cases in the ward. He suggested calling the senior resident for advice. The senior resident was quite busy at that time with an artificial resuscitation in the ward and sent a message through the head nurse: Tell the ambulance surgeon to use his best judgement.
Back in Admission, the ambulance surgeon shuffled the three admission slips on his desk like playing cards as he thought deeply. He tried to recall each patient, the deathly pallor of the blood-disease patient, the drowsy face of the kidney patient, the tense, desperate look of the cardiac case. Suddenly he made up his mind and wrote something on one of the admission slips. Then, calling an orderly, he instructed him to take the patient to Ward 6.
As a result of ten years of hard work and persistent effort on the part of government
officials and laity, Manila possesses a hospital which compares favorably with the best
hospitals of the world and which is already proving a veritable godsend to the people of
The chairman of the Committee on Corneal Transplantation called the meeting to order.
"The agenda for today makes note that a fresh cornea is available for transplantation and that this committee is to decide on the recipient. By the way, how many do we have on the waiting list as of today?"
"Sir, we have one hundred sixty-five."
The chairman appeared stupefied. "We are not going through the qualifications of one hundred sixty-five patients this morning, are we?"
"No, sir, we have done some preliminary screening and we have narrowed the choice to three."
"Fine. Will you summarize your criteria and findings?
"We first tried to determine which of the patients will most likely accept a corneal transplant. We eliminated right away those with negative light perception, those with shrunken eyeball and those with evidences of optic atrophy or accompanying disease like glaucoma, diabetes and focal infection. Thus we came to these three patients: M.N., female, 19 years old; B.F., male, 27 years old; and L.S., male, 47 years old. The three are in good health. Aside from the impaired vision, their corneal opacities are more or less similar, and all have received clearances from the endocrinologist, cardiologist and psychologist. Insofar as registration on the waiting list is concerned, all were registered within two weeks of one another. We have arrived at the stage where it will be necessary to use criteria not included in the standard policy adopted by this committee several years ago."
"Well, let's hear some opinions. I understand some of you have investigated these cases carefully and have arrived at positive decisions."
"Sir, I believe that the young girl should be the recipient. She is intelligent, has just finished college and her whole life is before her."
"But her parents are still alive, and she has two brothers who are gainfully employed. On the other hand, patient B.F. is the sole support of a family of five."
"And the third patient?"
"He is a hospital attendant referred to us by a provincial hospital. It seems to me that somebody who has spent seventeen years of his life caring for patients has earned his priority to be attended to now."
The chairman was silent for a long time. Idly he flicked the pages of the clinical charts in front of him, as if searching for words. At last he faced his staff squarely.
"Which one of you would like to play God today?"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BACK TO THE SHORT FICTION PAGE
BACK TO MAIN PAGE