Juan M. Flavier: The Filipino health hero

Jaime Z. Galvez Tan

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Juan M. Flavier: The Filipino health hero
'He would have been president of the Philippines. And a great one'

I have happy memories of the late Health Secretary and Senator Juan M. Flavier. He is such an outstanding Filipino that I believe no other doctor is greater than him except Jose Rizal.  

The years of Juan M. Flavier as Secretary of Health (July 1992 to  January 1995) were the golden years of the Department of Health. All Filipinos from various age groups of that era would have etched forever in their minds great memories of Flavier. Some of these come from his popular slogans for health campaigns such as Let’s DOH It, Yosi Kadiri, Oplan Alis Disease, Patak Health Centers, Sagip Mata, Sangkap Pinoy, Sariling Salat sa Suso, and health programs that continue to exist today: Sampung Halamang Gamot, Doctors to the Barrios, Baby and Mother Friendly Hospitals, among others.

In 1993, after a spate of bad publicity, the Philippines landed in Time magazine on a positive note following the success of the National Immunization Days where 12 million women were mobilized to bring their children for immunization. Twenty-five ministers of health from all over the world came to witness the nationwide immunization days the following year – such was the magic of Flavier. By 1994, he was named the most Outstanding Filipino of the Year, exceeding the popularity of then Vice President Joseph “Erap” Estrada  and then President Fidel V. Ramos.

He was my one and only working partner and boss with whom I shared near perfect compatibility. We shared the same ideas. We had no arguments or debates. We were on the same page on strategic thinking, executive policy making, planning and designing programs, and deciding who will be our best health partners. And we had such great fun!

He had such great wit and spontaneous eloquence. He would go to events without a prepared speech. He would just ask me, “Jimmy what shall I say here?” I would give him only 3 key words and he would already tell a joke about these topics including words of wisdom, anecdotes,  stories, and parables. He had such a sharp memory and superior intelligence that made him truly outstanding, definitely unforgettable, and always inspirational.

Open house

The office of the Secretary of Health during his era was an open house; the doors were literally always open. Everybody was welcome – street vendors, farmers, the urban poor, NGOs , young people, women of all ages, DOH cleaners and security guards. Movie stars and celebrities also made a beeline to his office like Vilma Santos, Sharon Cuneta, Richard Gomez, the Apo Hiking Society, Mister Shooly (Jun Urbano), and Ogie Alcasid, to name a few. They all volunteered their free services to  the Department of Health. Flavier’s magnetic personality charmed them no end.

Field visits to the provinces and regions were transformed. Flavier shunned grandeur and fanfare. He ordered that he and his staff would only be served boiled corn, nilagang saging na saba (boiled plaintain bananas), boiled camote (sweet potato), lugaw (rice porridge), boiled peanuts, fruits and vegetables. Our provincial hosts eventually learned not to serve lechon, fried chicken, or roast beef. Only one streamer was to be used and this would be re-used in future events. Throughout his stint, he held consultations with different sectors of society.

My personal inspiration from Flavier came when he attended our medicine class in the University of the Philippines. We were first year medicine students in 1970, and all I could remember was one full hour of laughter. At that time I had decided that I will not go to the United States and that I will serve only in the Philippines. Listening to Flavier’s funny lecture yet motivational messages made me say to myself, “He is my idol. I want to be a rural doctor who would also be full of fun and laughter and  a very happy and ever joyful healing person like him.” I would not like to be the stereotypical grim and determined serious doctor nor the dull, devoid of laughter rural physician. 

When I finally met him in 1976 after my initial year in the rural areas of Samar and Leyte, he tried to recruit me to his institution, the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, the international arm of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement where Flavier started his rural practice. But I was committed to stay in Samar and Leyte so I had to refuse him.

He was truly different. He told me to call him Johnny, not Dr Johnny or Dr Flavier or Sir Johnny. Finally, after 16 years of recruiting me, I said yes when he asked me to be his chief of staff and Undersecretary of Health. I never regretted those 3 years in government. Our 3 years together in the Department of Health showed that one can stay in government devoid of corruption, and be able to implement meaningful policies and successful programs within the realm of government. We learned what government can do best and what government cannot do. We recognized that government cannot do it alone and government would need the partnership of  NGOs, the private business sectors, community based organizations, people’s organizations and faith based groups.

The President we never had

He would have been president of the Philippines. And a great one. At one point all of us in his core staff dreamt of a government led by President Juan  M. Flavier. Now we can only sigh and imagine what might have been and what could have been. Alas in 1995, he ran for senator instead. 

Juan M. Flavier’s career as senator for 12 years (1995-2007) was equally with distinction and honor. He had perfect attendance and was always on time during the Senate sessions. He was the quorum maker in all Senate committee hearings that needed  quorum. He was the only Senator who did not use his pork barrel but instead channeled these to the Land Bank for low-cost loans to farmers and fisherfolks. He would advise me that in order to see him and hold a productive meeting with him I should go to his Senate office 10 minutes before 3 pm – the time he would go down to the Senate session hall. So I would see him 10 minutes before 3 and accompany him to the session hall promptly at 3 pm. And since all the other senators were late, we would use the next 30 to 45 minutes to discuss our agenda. Our meetings became always focused, efficient yet full of cheer. 

His greatest achievements as a legislator were the laws he authored and co-authored such as the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act, the Indigenous Peoples’ Act, Philippine National HIV-AIDS Law, the Newborn Screening Law and many more.

I am truly saddened by his demise. My body, mind and spirit are in deep sorrow. Yet I salute Juan M. Flavier. He is a my great mentor, my noteworthy inspiration, and a real friend. Juan M. Flavier is one of the greatest Filipinos, the best Secretary of Health ever, and the Filipino Health Hero. Mabuhay Ka Juan M. Flavier. We love you! – Rappler.com


Dr Jaime Galvez-Tan served as chief of staff and undersecretary of the late Health Secretary Flavier.

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