Source: New City, Philippines
Imelda Palomino, a Focolarina, shares how she builds brotherhood and a sense of family in her profession as a doctor
Imelda comes from a simple family. She is the eldest of six siblings. Originally from Samar, the family transferred to Tacloban where the children went to school. She recalls how her middle class parents were always struggling to make both ends meet, although both of them were working hard. Her father taught them that life is only worth living if spent for helping others.
She fondly remembers, “Ever since I was young our house was always full of people seeking help: food to eat, employment, medicines, and even people asking for advice about their marital problems. My father was generous to a fault. He would buy different kinds of newspapers everyday just to help the newsboys finish their sales. Or he would buy fish from all the vendors who passed by the house even if we still had enough.”
As for her mother, she recalls, “My mother is more sensible and practical. Where my father was idealistic, my mother is realistic, even if she too shared my father’s passion for helping people. Mom was orphaned at a young age so she had to face the hardships of life early. She had a good sense of humour which could help us have a new perspective on a big problem with a good dose of laughter.”As a child, Imelda also wanted to be a doctor, attracted by the nobility of the profession, and the possibility of helping those in suffering. The study of science attracted her. So it wasn’t a surprise for her to be finally donning a white coat after years of study, having overcome financial difficulties together with her family. The desire to be a doctor was also fuelled by her meeting the Focolare which helped her to live the Gospel concretely in her day-today life.
After getting to know the Focolare spirituality of unity, she felt that this life had to make an impact on society and for her, this meant taking up the challenge to do something for the poor. At that time Chiara Lubich was also inviting the Focolare youth to learn “how to die for their own people.” How? By living the words of the Gospel “Whatever you do to the least, you do it unto me.”
To die for my own people
She narrates, “I had just finished medical school and had planned a definite career path. However, heeding the call of Jesus to live the Gospel, I left everything to become a Focolarina, and together with a group of youth started a Social Center called Bukas Palad in Pasay City, in one of city’s depressed areas. There we started a free clinic where I received indigent patients. In the spirit of living the Gospel, I also learned how to manage the feeding programme, and market goods – rice, mongo, sugar, and milk – to be distributed to the families, plus perform many other small tasks like cleaning the centre itself.”
Imelda wasn’t used to doing these things, but she realized that they were an opportunity to grow in loving. This made her convinced that it was a way to translate the Gospel into concrete terms. She shares, “Working in Bukas Palad was like participating in a workshop on reciprocity. Their way of working created a community around the centre. The people we served then began to reciprocate and love among us circulated, as they took over many of the services we had started.” After a few years, Bukas Palad was able to open up branches in Manila, Tagaytay, La Union and Davao.
Now it continues to serve thousands of families. When Imelda transferred to Cebu, she helped to start a social centre similar to that of Pasay. It began very humbly, but now it has grown tremendously to include a fully functional free clinic, a housing programme, a nutrition programme, a pre-school, and a support programme for many students from elementary, high school and college, to mention only some of its services.
Reciprocity at work
Currently, Imelda works as a gastroenterologist in Cebu. Gastroenterology is a branch of medicine focused on the digestive system and its disorders so a gastroenterologist is concerned with digestion, and specializes in locating, easing, and helping cure the patient’s cause of discomfort.
As a doctor, she tries to live the Gospel in the relationships she establishes with her patients, the doctors, the hospital staff, and the students in the school where she teaches. She tries to be fair with her professional fees and updates herself in her field so as to offer the best service to her patients.
She recounts a beautiful experience: “One time the wife of a patient came in carrying a bunch of bananas from their backyard. She told me that her husband, a cancer patient whom I had cared for, had just passed away.
Before dying, the husband had asked her to bring the bananas to the office as a sign of gratitude. Here was an assurance that they felt cared for and a proof of reciprocity.” Another time, a patient from the province had a serious illness and needed a very long and delicate operation, so Imelda was attentive to the smallest details of her care.
The case dragged on and there were many complications one after another. It seemed that the patient wouldn’t make it. Coming from the province, she had but only one relative to care for her. Imelda tried to allay her fears by helping her grow in her relationship with Jesus. The patient even opened up to her about everything, also about her financial resources. After some months in the hospital she was ready to go home, but she had run up a huge bill. Imelda waived her own doctor’s fees so that her patient could better manage her finances. After all, this patient still had to pay the surgeon who had performed the hard, delicate and tedious operation on her. Surprisingly, the surgeon too then waived his bill.
Imelda affirms, “That was a beautiful surprise for me. When we spread a bit of love around, it can indeed become contagious, inspiring others to do the same.”
A sense of family
She continues: “I try to go to the heart of a patient’s problem by listening very carefully to them – to what they say, as well as to what they don’t say in words, and to probe, but without being abrasive. I do not hurry to finish a consultation at once. This way, the consult itself is already a therapeutic experience. This always starts a beautiful relationship with them.
“Once, I had a Muslim patient with whom it was not easy to communicate because she was not open. As the mother of a big clan, she was much loved and respected. Every time they brought her to me, they arrived in a big group, so I allowed everyone inside even if they had to stand and wait inside the small clinic. I listened to all of them, and not only to the patient. It was also an occasion to meet the whole family and be acquainted with the culture they lived in, for it provides a clue to the proper care of the patient.
“After some years, they have become like my family too. When one of them gets sick, they come over to Cebu, if they can. It is also our relationship that assures them that they are being taken care of, and considered not only as patients but also as human persons, as brothers and sisters.”
In this profession, it is easy to be tempted to make more money. So, Imelda tries to follow the indications about when to, or when not to, perform certain procedures. Having the diagnostic procedures for gastroenterologists readily available, she can easily order one without the proper indications.
However, what matters to her is to live as a Christian in her medical practice so that at the end of the day, she can tell Jesus, “I did everything for You in each person I encountered.” Recently, she had a patient referred to her for management. The doctor who referred her expected Imelda to do two procedures. However, she saw that only one procedure was enough, because it could address all his symptoms.
It would have been possible though to do both procedures so as to earn more, but then she would have become more of a technician than a real physician. She declares, “Instead, living as a Christian keeps me grounded to what is essential.”
Imelda also volunteers her services for free in a government hospital, exploring ways to expand these services in order that many patients can benefit from them. She shares, “It is also a chance to teach the medical residents there the ropes of the trade. For these past months, we have conducted some activities for the benefit of patients who cannot afford to pay. We also provided free hepatitis screening for all the hospital staff. With these small efforts, I hope that God may strengthen this urge to serve him in more hearts, so as to spread his Kingdom in the society we live.”