From Marcos to Duterte: How Philippine presidents handled their health problems

Jodesz Gavilan
From Marcos to Duterte: How Philippine presidents handled their health problems
In 2006, Imee Marcos recalled the secrecy that shrouded the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos' deteriorating health – to douse doubts about his ability to govern

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte’s health has been the subject of much speculation in recent months following trips to the hospital and his recent announcement that a “growth” was found in his digestive system during an endoscopy. 

Officials and his allies are not keen on releasing medical bulletins despite calls by various groups for the administration to be more transparent regarding the situation of the President. (READ: President’s health: Touchy topic for Duterte, public concern for Constitution

This is not the first time that Filipinos have clamored for updates and transparency regarding the health of their president. The current administration is also not the first one to be stingy when it comes to details about the chief executive’s state of health.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution states that “in case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health.” The phrase is silent on what counts as a “serious illness.”

How did Philippine presidents handle their own health concerns? 



Kidney ailment

At the start of his 3rd term in 1981, rumors on Ferdinand Marcos’ deteriorating health intensified. They persisted as his public appearances grew scarce. A report from 1984 noted that the “obvious poor health” of Marcos had sparked a mad scramble among opposition members regarding his would-be successor.

In December 1984, more than a year after the assassination of Marcos’ chief critic Ninoy Aquino, then labor minister Blas Ope told the New York Times that “the health of our leader is undergoing certain vicissitudes, problems,” adding that he was “in control but cannot take major initiatives.” 

This disclosure, the Times added, was the first on-the-record confirmation about Marcos’ poor health. Rumors heightened “when [Marcos] went into seclusion November 14 for health reasons and was not seen in public until November 26” in 1984, the Times added.

A year after, in 1985, the Los Angeles Times cited a report quoting Dr Potenciano Baccay, one of Marcos’s private physicians and official at the National Kidney Foundation (now the National Kidney and Transplant Institute), that Marcos underwent kidney transplants in 1983 and 1985.

The Palace called the report “sheer fantasy.” Baccay was later abducted and killed by unidentified men the same month he talked to the press, according to a New York Times report.

In 1986, prior to the EDSA People Power Revolution and during a presidential campaign, the Times  cited United States intelligence reports that said Marcos was “seriously ill with a cyclical, potentially fatal rare disease.” 

SICK. A hospital bed allegedly used by then president Ferdinand Marcos was found inside the presidential bedroom in Malacañang in the aftermath of EDSA People Power in 1986. Photo from Presidential Archives

Marcos died while in exile in Hawaii in 1989, three years after his ouster in a people power revolution in February 1986. His death was due to complications caused by kidney, lung, and heart ailments. (READ: The long journey of Ferdinand Marcos’ remains) 

In 2006, then Ilocos Norte representative Imee Marcos, according to a GMA News reportsaid that secrecy was maintained to the point that advisers dismissed the idea of treatment abroad  – to douse doubts about the dictator’s ability to lead the country.


On March 24, 2008, the family of Corazon Aquino announced on national television that the former president was diagnosed with colon cancer during tests that she went through in the early weeks of that year. Her youngest daughter, celebrity Kris Aquino, read the family’s statement beside then senator Benigno Aquino III, and asked for privacy and prayers.

The former president started her chemotherapy sessions a day after, on March 25, 2008. She appeared in several events, including masses, prior to undergoing laparoscopic colectomy on May 4, 2008. 

Aquino was again hospitalized on June 23, 2009. The Aquino family consistently updated the public about the condition of the former president until her death on August 1, 2009. 


AFTER. Then president Fidel Ramos with a visible scar running below the right ear to the base of his throat meets with key cabinet men a day after undergoing an operation for a blocked artery in 1996. Photo by Romeo Gacad/AFP

– Blocked artery as announced on December 23, 1996 
– Rumors about a mild stroke


On December 23, 1996, the Palace released a medical bulletin that said a “significant carotid block” in then president Fidel Ramos’ neck was due to high cholesterol.

That same day, Ramos underwent surgery to remove the block. A day after the operation, Ramos faced the media clad in hospital pajamas and said he was feeling “very well.” (READ: Ramos swam, and the nation was afloat)

The condition was allegedly life-threatening enough that then vice president Joseph Estrada was asked to be ready just in case, according to a report by Asiaweek on January 10, 1997.

SWIMMING WITH THE BOSS. Cabinet members 'forced' to join Fidel Ramos in the pool in the aftermath of his surgery. Photo from the personal collection of Gabriel Claudio

Ramos underwent strength tests and various checkups prior to going overseas for official trips. He also regularly released medical bulletins on his health.


At 90 years old, Ramos is still up – often challenging people to do push-ups with him.


The medical conditions of former president Joseph Estrada were first disclosed to the public after he was ousted in a civilian-backed military revolt on January 20, 2001. 

He underwent knee surgeries for osteoarthritis in Hong Kong on December 31, 2005 while he was on temporary furlough from a house arrest.

One of his doctors, orthopedic surgeon Christopher Mow, said that he had knee ailments since 1998, when he won as president.

In 2012, Estrada underwent stem cell therapy. (READ: Philippine elite fight aging with stem cell therapy) 


– Acute diarrhea in 2006
– Lumps found in her breast and groin in 2009

In June 2006, the Palace issued medical bulletins and updates regarding Arroyo’s hospitalization for acute diarrhea. Weeks after her hospital confinement, she tried to end rumors by saying, “I got sick, I am fine. End of story.” 

Another hospitalization in July 2009, for a lumpectomy, was only confirmed by Malacañang two weeks after the procedure. Malacañang said the operation was done after lumps were found on her breast and groin. 

BRACE. An old photo of former president and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wearing her neck brace. File photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Arroyo underwent spinal surgery in 2011. Titanium implants and a bone substitute were used to rebuild Arroyo’s spine. This ilness was one of the reasons why Arroyo ended up under hospital arrest at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) until July 2016. (READ: Where’s the neck brace? Speaker Arroyo shows scars to prove spinal condition)


NOT QUITTING. Then president Benigno Aquino III coughs as he delivers his State of the Nation Address. Screenshot from Rappler video

– Chronic coughing due to smoking


Aquino was never hospitalized during his presidency. He just had daily bouts of dry cough.

Malacañang on November 24, 2012 declared he will not quit smoking since it is “the one thing that takes away his stress.” Aquino ignored calls for him to kick the habit, particularly from the Philippine Medical Association. (READ: ‘Will the President please stop smoking?’) 

The Palace also said some of his coughing fits were due to allergy, not just cigarettes. 


BENIGN? President Rodrigo Duterte says his tests came back 'negative'. Presidential Photo

– “Growth” found during an endoscopy
– Buerger’s Disease
– Barrett’s Esophagus
– Gastroesophageal reflux disease
– Frequent migraines and spinal issues
– Sleeps with the aid of an oxygen concentrator and has used fentanyl patches 


The Palace has not released official medical bulletins about the health of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Much of the information about his condition comes from President himself, who would often announce what pained him during speeches. (READ: Duterte tells Cabinet medical results came back ‘negative’)

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque (now on leave) said Duterte’s health is still covered by rules on the confidentiality of health records because the Constitution only requires disclosure in the event of “serious illness.” –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.