education in the Philippines

Medical board topnotcher’s rheumatic heart disease didn’t stop her from dreaming big

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Medical board topnotcher’s rheumatic heart disease didn’t stop her from dreaming big

MEDICAL BOARD TOPNOTCHER. Aira Saguitan Castro battled rheumatic heart disease in childhood and her doctor inspired her to take up medicine.

Aira Cassandra Castro

The Ilocos Norte native wants to pay back and serve her province

MANILA, Philippines – Watching relatives struggle with the hardships of chronic illnesses fueled Aira Cassandra Castro’s dream to become a doctor.

On Thursday, March 16, the 25-year-old graduate of Mariano Marcos State University-Batac (MMSU) in Batac, Ilocos Norte topped the medical board exams.

“All my life I have seen my family, and relatives in and out of hospitals,” Castro said in a mix of Ilokano, Tagalog, and English during a telephone interview on Friday, March 17.

Her grandmother died of kidney disease. Her parents are diabetic.

But it wasn’t just relatives who battled illness.

When she was eight years old, Castro, showed symptoms of rheumatic heart disease. 

Children with the disease can suffer shortness of breath and inflamed joints. Full recovery can take a long time, with extended antibiotic treatments to prevent recurring infections.

Castro was already 21 years old when her pediatric cardiologist cleared her to get off meds, according to her longtime pediatrician, Dr. Patria Calupig-Demetillo.

Castro described Demetillo as “one of my idols,” a role model who pushed her to take up “a noble profession.”

The weight of those childhood experiences was clear during Castro’s address at their Post-Graduate Internship Commencement Rites on August 12, 2022.

Most medical graduates have their memorable internship “nightmares,” a unique shared experience often told in the language of their profession.

Castro chose to focus on another unifying theme, “the bigger picture” beyond their personal struggles.

“It starts with a loved one afflicted with a disease. A loved one so dear, you want to do everything to save them. She/he may be your mother, your father, your grandparent, your sibling… anyone whom you do not like to see in pain.”

“And so that loved one ignited a spark in you which then grew into a dream- a dream of becoming a doctor to alleviate their pains, to eliminate their aches. Some of them may have departed us, nonetheless, that dream they ignited lives on. That is how it starts.”

Now Castro has the rest of her life to help ease other people’s suffering.

The most immediate plan of the college scholar at MMSU-Batac, whose last year was supported by the Ilocos Norte provincial government, is to give back to the community.

“I want to teach at MMSU, to impart knowledge to those wanting to become doctors and to give back,” Castro said.

Young community

Theirs is a very young medical community.

Castro belongs to only the third batch (25 graduates) of the newly-established MMSU Batac Medical School.

Castro also hopes that by staying put in the community, she can encourage others who may feel stumped by obstacles to stay on track.

“There are really no barriers,” stressed the new doctor who was a scholar all her college and medical school life.

“We cannot use financial burden as an excuse because many scholarships are available from government agencies and private sector. It’s not only free tuition but also allowance.”

Castro also intends to take her residency at the MMSU hospital.

“The problem of Ilocos Norte is the lack of doctors,” she pointed out. “The doctor-patient ratio is poor like the entire country.”

Casto’s internship commencement speech burns with passion.

That fierce desire to see relatives and herself get some ease from pain and other effects of illness, has now transferred to a wider world.

In words that probably brought them back again to those hours in crowded state hospital corridors and wards where they battled death – not today, not today – Castro spoke of what carried them through the sleepless days and nights.

“… A father whose face is wet with tears, begging for someone to attend to his sick child, who can sacrifice everything to afford even just the most basic of medications for that child to live… an elder man who was just diagnosed with cancer, yet there is not one family member to look after him. And so you are forced to watch him refuse medical treatment and watch him come to terms with death.” 

“…A mother whose eyes hold regret for losing her unborn child because she failed to take care of herself during her pregnancy.”

“Because of these people, you will never forget the signs, symptoms, and treatment of pediatric pneumonia; the counseling a family should have when it is in dysfunction; the prenatal care a mother needs to carry a pregnancy healthily to term.”

The two years of internship taught Castro “the stories of our people.”

Their patients were teachers, who showed hard reality: That too many cannot obtain quality health care, that some have never glimpsed “even just the shadow of a single healthcare provider.”

The graduating intern urged her peers: “Let us be doctors who are part of the equation, who are part of the solution. Let us be doctors not only for individual patients but for our whole community, working hand-in-hand with them to achieve what is right, what is beneficial, and what is just. It is only in this way, can we say that our debt is fully paid; only in this way, can we say that our lives are truly changed.” –

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