The death of healthcare options for the poor

Ae Llantada
'Can doctors play a larger role in advocating better access to quality healthcare for the poor?'

In 2011, Papa was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He, my mother, and I were at a private hospital in our province as the doctor planned a chemotherapy session to shrink my father’s tumour. Its huge costs made my mother cringe, and seeing this, the doctor suggested a cheaper alternative.

“Is it going to be as effective as the more expensive one?” My mother inquired.

“Madam, you’re looking for the cheap one, right?” The doctor replied. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

The three of us understood what that meant, so Mama chose the more expensive option. But my father knew that we shouldn’t have to spend that huge amount of money just for his treatment.

The next day, Papa died.

‘Beggars can’t be choosers’

There was a ten-year-old girl named Yanna, who died after a private hospital refused to admit her, because her parents didn’t have enough money at hand. If the claims of her mother are true, how could the hospital staff stand not to admit a child who was dying just because her family couldn’t pay a deposit? How could they refuse to save a life based on the thickness of someone’s wallet? 

The truth is, money can never buy health, but it can buy quality healthcare.

This realization dawned on me when we were at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) when we began our fight against cancer.

Sick people, including children and the elderly, were lined up outside the PGH Outpatient Department despite the heat, with the hope of being cured by the nation’s finest specialists. Similarly, there were throngs of families – young and old – and on the lawn of PGH. They had nowhere to rest for the night, because, like us, they were also sent from the provinces to see a doctor in Manila.

They probably had to camp out on the lawn of PGH. They probably had to leave (or sell) their homes and their sakahan, and travel a few days in order to be healed. In another part of the metropolis, ‘sick’ politicians who were ‘arrested’ for stealing money from the people are lying on their beds, in their air-conditioned rooms, with multiple highly-paid doctors around them.

Moments after, my attention was caught by a group of young adults wearing flashy white gowns and small rectangular caps on their heads. They were lined up in twos, as they made this glorious parade on the lawn of PGH – the same lawn where these temporarily homeless families rested.                      

As I observed each of their faces, not a single one of them took a glance at the poor families. Perhaps, they were in a rush, or maybe it was just the lack of sympathy. I realized, suddenly, that those were our future doctors.

Ought to heal

As I was staring at my father’s coffin the night before his burial, the voice of a doctor reverberated in my mind.

Beggars can’t be choosers. Beggars can’t be choosers.

No one could blame me that I took that expression as an offensive remark, because I had a father who was battling cancer, and a financially-challenged mother who would do everything just to get him healed.

For us, what the doctor said meant that those who couldn’t afford good medical treatment do not deserve it. It was like he slapped that fact right in our faces. It was like he added salt to the painful wound that cancer placed on our hearts.

Even now it still hurts.

Growing up, I always thought of doctors as champions who save lives. I held onto the fantasy that guys in flashy white gowns would be able to save my father. But after everything happened, I changed my mind.

My father’s death wasn’t the fault of anyone. Papa knew it was time for him to go. He knew that leaving and mourning is more necessary than staying and suffering. What lingers in my mind is the disappointment that the ones whom I expected to understand more were the ones who made us feel that Papa did not deserve to live because we couldn’t afford.

Doctors ought to heal, and heal not just by scribbling illegible words on a piece of paper. The care and the fighting spirit that a doctor can give are far more important than capsules and syringes. It is time that ‘intensive care’ does not just mean a room full of machines, but the ‘care’ that heals lives, regardless of one’s ability to afford it.

A new ‘breed’

With all these experiences, I insist to bear in mind that there is still hope for our healthcare system. I know it is a matter of culture, not policy.

Our medical professionals ought to be the ones to clamor for universal quality healthcare. And they must do it because they care for the people, not because they think they’re paid less. They ought to be the ones to change the cultural mindset that only the rich can afford their services, that only those who can pay will be healed.

This year, an affordable med school opened in the university where I graduated. It will be a home for a ‘new breed’ of doctors, they say.

But whenever I look at that four-storey, gloriously-furnished med school building, I know, that perhaps, I have to pray harder. – 

Ae Llantada is a graduate of Business Administration major in Human Resource Development at Bicol University, Daraga, Albay. He spends his leisure time reading, writing, and engaging in conversations. He believes that knowledge has no value unless it is shared. You can check his blogs here. 


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