Doctors For the People – Dr. Dalisay’s Commencement Speech for the Class 2018 Graduation

INSPIRING BEYOND WORDS: Dr. Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. is a writer with sixteen (16) Palanca awards, author of Soledad’s Sister, and also one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1993 for his creative writing. He currently serves as the Vice President for Public Affairs of the UP System.

Delivered by Dr. Jose Y. Dalisay Jr., PhD
UP College of Medicine Commencement
UP Theater, July 22, 2018, 12:00 pm

Chancellor Carmencita Padilla, Dean Charlotte Chiong, Members of the Graduating Class of 2018 and their proud parents, fellow members of the faculty and staff, friends, ladies and gentlemen:

Thank you all for this great honor of being invited as your commencement speaker. I’m still not sure exactly why a Professor of English is speaking to a corps of medical graduates and professionals, and I know that many of you will be wondering as well what I have to say. But I will do my best to make it worth your time—and mine—for at least one good reason.

This will probably be the last time I will be wearing this sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the University. So this, too, is my commencement as much as yours—the start of another phase of life. This, too, is my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with you some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

And, may I add, as a writer of fiction, which beneath all these robes and titles is what I really am—a storyteller.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature—my very first First Prize. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28—and I’ll have something to say about being in one’s 20s later—I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

But beyond my personal story, I have always been fascinated by doctors—as subjects of stories, and as writers themselves.

Almost thirty years ago, as a graduate student in Wisconsin, and again for some strange reason, I was invited by the Philippine Medical Association of Michigan to speak at their annual dinner in Detroit. I later wrote an essay about that memorable experience, because the doctor who met me—a very accomplished man—did so in a gleaming black-and-white Rolls-Royce, and I had to check my shoes before stepping in.

I don’t know how many doctors actually listened to me above the chatter and the clink of glasses, but I gave a talk about “Writing as Healing: Doctors, Writers, and Doctor-Writers,” in which I noted how many well-known writers were actually doctors by training: the French Renaissance satirist François Rabelais, the Russian playwright and short story master Anton Chekhov, the American essayist and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of his namesake, the equally famous Supreme Court Justice), the American poet William Carlos Williams, and the British writer W. Somerset Maugham. In our own literary history, of course, we have Jose Rizal, and the short story writer Arturo Rotor. In modern times, we have William Nolen, Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park fame, Oliver Sacks, and my favorite of them all, the brilliant essayist, fictionist, and surgeon, Dr. Richard Selzer.

In his book of essays entitled Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Selzer addresses his central interest, the relationship between passion and pathology:

“Someone asked me why a surgeon would write…. Is it vanity that urges him?  There is glory enough in the knife. Is it for money? One can make too much money. No. It is to search for some meaning in the art of surgery, which is at once murderous, painful, healing, and full of love….”

This quote demonstrates the strength of Selzer’s writing, which is inspired, graceful, and precise. (“Surgery,” Selzer writes, “is the red flower that blooms among the leaves and thorns that are the rest of medicine.”) At the same time, Selzer also shows what to some of his fellow MD’s might seem a weakness—that is, his refusal to separate philosophy or spirituality if you will from physical medicine. If you think it silly to speak of a colostomy in the same breath that you would speak of love, then Selzer may not be for you.

Beyond Nolen and perhaps even Crichton, Selzer has gone on to write serious fiction about the world of healing—not only about doctors, but about their patients and the lives they lead beyond the hospital. In one of his stories, a woman’s husband dies and his organs are given away to seven different recipients in Texas; she is happy for them, but, of course, is unhappy for herself who now has absolutely nothing left of him. So she tracks down the man who has received her husband’s heart, and much to his surprise, requests him to let her listen to her husband’s heartbeat through his bare chest for one hour. The man and his suspicious wife refuse. She persists, and finally he relents.

It is a bizarre and also funny story—a superb illustration of the humanism we all aspire to, in that it reminds us that the simple needs of human life are still more complex than all the transplantation technologies we can dream of. In dealing with this widow’s grief, Selzer achieves physicianship on more than one level. This perfect synthesis of writer and healer, of sensitivity and technique, was on Selzer’s mind when he answered his own question:

“No, it is not the surgeon who is God’s darling. He is the victim of vanity. It is the poet who heals with his words, stanches the flow of blood, stills the rattling breath, applies poultice to the scalded flesh…. Did you ask me why a surgeon writes? I think it is because I wish to be a doctor.”

Not all doctors can write—although many write prescriptions that can hardly be read. But one doctor who did write, of course, was Jose Rizal, one of my personal heroes whose travels and haunts I have tried to follow around the world from Dapitan, Singapore, and Hong Kong to San Francisco, Madrid, and Barcelona and, two years ago, to his medical studies in Heidelberg. When my creative writing graduate students in their mid-20s sometimes tell me that they have nothing to write about, or are too young and too new to strive for greatness, I remind them of Rizal, who many forget was only 25 when Noli Me Tangere was published. Twenty-five, and already by then approaching the perfect synthesis of the arts and the sciences in the one same person.

Rizal’s example underscores the need to embrace and imbibe art and science as

corporal elements of ideal citizenship. To create a viable national community, we need to promote rational, fact-based thinking and discourse over political hysteria and hyperbole, just as we need to actively recover, strengthen, and sustain the cultural bonds that define us as a people.

Speaking of political hysteria, one of my hobbies is collecting antiquarian books, and one of my recent acquisitions was a bound volume from 1822 of a Boston-based magazine called The Atheneum, which collected articles from other magazines from around the world. I was attracted to this book because it carried a report titled “A Massacre in Manilla,” about of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—that took place in Manila in 1820. Scores if not hundreds of people were killed by a rampaging mob, following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine. Does this sound familiar—alleged mass murder by vaccine?

So history keeps repeating itself, partly because, despite all the wars and dictatorships we have suffered through, we never seem to learn, although some of us try to teach.

For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Or at least, that’s the noble intention. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

Again, that’s the ideal case. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department. In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

It needs to be pointed out that, contrary to popular misimpression, UP has never been monolithically radical. For every activist who walked out of class to join a protest rally, at least five remained behind, intent on simply finishing his or her studies, no matter what. Those of us in the active opposition were always in the minority—a loud minority, which took more than a decade to generate the critical mass to topple Marcos and martial law.

Indeed, like our country itself, the history of the University of the Philippines has been full of ironies and paradoxes. For example, while some would later see it as a bastion of Marxism or at least nationalism, and certainly of secularism, few remember that UP’s first president was an American and a Protestant pastor named Murray Bartlett—who incidentally championed UP as “A University for Filipinos.”

In reality, therefore, UP like other state universities is still a microcosm of society at large, reflective of its divisions and its differences.

And then again, any self-respecting university cannot be content with the realities on the ground, but has constantly to reach for the unreachable star. It cannot be just a microcosm, but something better than the rest of society—better not necessarily in terms of intellectual superiority bordering on arrogance, but better in terms of the quality of its discourse.

That quality of discourse, informed by scientific reason and artistic empathy, can be education’s best contribution to national community. UP—and our other universities—can and must be the providers and drivers of the truth, and of the careful and insightful analysis that can ventilate issues of national significance—like Constitutional change, our territorial integrity, the delivery of justice, human rights, and the eradication of mass poverty, hunger, and disease.

The way to help unite a nation is to imbue all sectors of society with an understanding of and a commitment to larger things at stake. And UP is that functional meeting place between the Filipino rich and poor, with our admissions profile now almost evenly divided between upper and lower income students. Beyond dealing with the larger national issues as teachers, researchers, and experts, we in education must ourselves be avatars of reason, compassion, and tolerance, while remaining steadfast in our defense of academic freedom as the requisite of knowledge generation. In our classrooms and conference halls, we must create and provide the forums that will ventilate these issues in ways that social media cannot. And we have to learn how to listen again, to see why people of different opinions believe what they do.

As President Concepcion said in his investiture speech last year, we in UP should focus “on finding, in this University, our common ground, a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space within which its constituents can teach, study, and work productively to their full potential.

“UP must be that special place within which it should still be possible—despite all divisions and distractions—to work together with the University’s and the nation’s strategic interests in mind.

“There should be no better home in this country for the expression of ideas, without fear of violent retribution from one’s colleagues or from the State itself. There should be no more welcoming environment than UP for cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature—in other words, the work we have always been meant to do, and do best.”

Let me end with a quote from a favorite source—me—and share something that I have said to every UP graduating class I have been honored to address:

To be a UP student, faculty member, and alumnus is to be burdened but also ennobled by a unique mission—not just the mission of serving the people, which is in itself not unique, and which is also reflected, for example, in the Atenean concept of being a “man for others.” Rather, to my mind, our mission is to lead and to be led by reason—by independent, scientific, and secular reason, rather than by politicians, priests, shamans, bankers, or generals.

You are UP because you can think and speak for yourselves, by your own wits and on your own two feet, and you can do so no matter what the rest of the people in the room may be thinking. You are UP because no one can tell you to shut up, if you have something sensible and vital to say. You are UP because you dread not the poverty of material comforts but the poverty of the mind. And you are UP because you care about something as abstract and sometimes as treacherous as the idea of “nation”, even if it kills you.

Sometimes, long after UP, we forget these things and become just like everybody else; I certainly have. Even so, I suspect that that forgetfulness is laced with guilt—the guilt of knowing that you were, and could yet become, somebody better. And you cannot even argue that you did not know, because today, I just told you so.

May you be the best doctors of and for the people that you can be, and thank you all. Mabuhay ang UP at mabuhay tayong lahat!

Credit: UP Medics

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