‘Doki’ to the barrios: Dr Israel Bactol’s commitment to serve

Patty Pasion

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‘Doki’ to the barrios: Dr Israel Bactol’s commitment to serve
The young cardiologist, who died of COVID-19, dedicated his brief medical career to bringing health care to those on the fringes

MANILA, Philippines – They say that when you die, you won’t be remembered by the wealth you made or the awards you received, but by the lives you touched. 

There is no doubt about Dr Israel Bactol’s brilliance. He was a consistent honor student since elementary school. He strived through college and medical school as a scholar. He served as chief resident during his internal medicine residency training. 

His last achievement was to be among the select cardiology fellows-in-training of the Philippine Heart Center.

However, on March 21, the promising 34-year-old physician lost his fight against COVID-19, disease caused by the novel coronavirus which, to date, has not spared the lives of more than 50 in the Philippines, including medical frontliners. 

“I’ve been around many physicians. Everybody’s brilliant. But, every now and then, you come across a person who just separates himself from the crowd. That’s El,” Dr Tom-Louie Acosta told Rappler in an interview. 

Acosta, an internist, is Bactol’s close friend and co-trainee from his 3-year residency at Premiere Medical Center in Cabanatuan City. 

“You can’t help but gravitate towards him because he was such a beautiful person, on top of being a brilliant physician,” he added. 

Bactol’s memory is etched in the hearts of his family, friends, fellow physcians, hospital colleagues, and patients coming from underserved communities. 

Bactol, whose parents are both public school teachers in Peñaranda town in Nueva Ecija, believes that the medical profession should be in the service of the people. 

Heart for the people

After graduating from the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and passing the Physician Licensure Exam in 2012, Bactol went to Occidental Mindoro, where he would serve as a doctor to the barrio for two years. It’s a second-class province in terms of income, with a population of less than half a million at the time.  

His dedication to attend to the medical needs of financially-challenged patients did not end in Mindoro. Bactol, sleepless from at least a 32-hour duty, would also visit his patients at home because they cannot afford to go to the hospital. 

“He would even take it out of his own time to look for medicines for his patients. He would talk to his contacts, for example, in the pharmaceutical field,” Acosta recalled. 

Since news of his death broke, his family and friends have been receiving calls from the people Bactol helped. Many of them are from low-income households but still want to give something as a sign of their gratitude to his service. 

Bactol, said Acosta, even wanted to go back to the barrio after his training at the Philippine Heart Center. He said his friend was planning to mentor the local community. For him, healthcare had become a lot limited to the privileged, and so he wanted to bringing access closer to those on the fringes.

He was generous not only of his time but also of his knowledge. “Doki” or “Doc B,” as he was fondly called by his colleagues at Premiere Medical Center, was a “walking medical dictionary,” said nurse Gelmark Olivares. He would answer their questions, guide them in treating patients, and mentor them with the growing knowledge he gets from constantly reading. 

Bactol was only stingy with one thing: words.

But what he lacked in expressing himself, he more than made up for in the way he cares for his loved ones. 

When he earned enough, he gifted his mother with an oven because she said she wanted to bake when he and his brothers were little. 

A torpe (shy) man, he courted his girlfriend by cooking hot meals and delivering them to her hospital duty. 

(R) Dr. Israel Bactol with girlfriend Dr. Lerma Iglesia. Photo from Dr. Lerma Iglesia's Facebook profile

“Steak, sinigang, iyan ang mga niluluto niya para sa akin. Dinengdeng o inabra, at iyong mga gulay na pinipitas niya sa bakuran,” Dr Lerma Iglesia, his girlfriend of two years, said. 

(Steak, tamarind pork stew, he cooked these for me. He also cooked sautéed vegetables, which he picked from their backyard.) 

Simple lang ang gusto niya. Ayaw niya ng masyadong luho sa buhay (He was a simple man. He did not go after luxuries in life). He was a simple man with simple dreams,” she added. 

Bactol and Iglesia met during their residency training. The couple had been together for two years and were already talking about getting married as soon as he finished at the Philippine Heart Center. 

“But God had better plans,” said Iglesias, who is also under quarantine during our phone interview. 

Contracting COVID-19 

It was uncertain how the doctor got the novel coronavirus. According to a Philippine Heart Center bulletin, Bactol did not come in direct contact with a COVID-19 patient. He was also not in the COVID ward.

His older brother Elijah Bactol said that he experienced body pains and was initially diagnosed with dengue. His condition worsened and he was brought to the intensive care unit on March 12. Just 9 days later, he passed away. His COVID test results came only two days before his death. 

Bactol was young but he was diabetic, according to Iglesias. That might have weakened his body’s resistance to the virus. 

The Philippine Heart Center and the Philippine Heart Association mourned his death as the community lost a young and promising cardiologist.

People close to him want the young physician to be remembered for his dedication to promote the most important values of the medical profession: service and compassion. 

“I take solace and comfort in the fact that he died doing what he loved – that is, saving people,” said Acosta. – Rappler.com

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Patty Pasion

Patty leads the Rappler+ membership program. She used to be a Rappler multimedia reporter who covered politics, labor, and development issues of vulnerable sectors.