Reminiscing, Praying and Caring

Address delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN during the Graduation Ceremony of the Far Eastern University-Nicanor Reyes Medical Foundation held online on January 28, 2022

Chairman Nicanor C. Reyes III, President Antonio H. Abad Jr., other members of the Board of Trustees, members of the academic community, dear graduates and their families, ladies and gentlemen.

As an 85-year old retiree, I have been respectfully declining invitations to speak publicly, or to be interviewed by media, because I believe I have had my “say” during the last seven decades that started when I was a student leader at the Far Eastern University and when all of you, dear graduates, were not yet born. However, I cannot refuse the call of your President Antonio H. Abad Jr., my close personal friend and compadre of over 60 years, to reminisce my years at the FEU and to render two pieces of advice to you, the 250 graduates of the FEU-Nicanor Reyes Medical Foundation.

Reminiscing the FEU Hospital

In fact, Tony Abad and I are not only close personal friends and compadres. We were also law partners in the Panganiban, Abad and Associates Law Office or PABLAW which was formed in 1965 when we were young lawyers. Since then, he has distinguished himself in the teaching and practice of law, becoming law dean of FEU and Adamson University. My inaanak, Anna Maria D. Abad, or ADA as she is fondly called, took after her father as an expert in labor law, and followed his footsteps as law dean of Adamson and as managing partner of their law firm.

I was a student of law at Far Eastern University in 1956-1960 and became President of the FEU Central Student Organization in 1957 to 1958 when I was still a sophomore. One of the then burning issues in the campus was the collection by the University of P6.00 per student as a health and hospitalization fee. As the President of the Central Student Council of the over 36,000 FEU students at the time, I vigorously opposed the compulsory imposition of the fee because not all students would be benefited as only a few would be hospitalized and yet all the students were required to pay the fee.

One day in 1958, I was stricken with a very painful stomach ache, so painful that I nearly collapsed while attending my evening classes at the Institute of Law. My classmates rushed me to the FEU Hospital, which at the time was located at Morayta Street, now known as Nicanor Reyes Sr. Street, adjacent to the Girls High School Building of FEU.

Dr. Ricardo Alfonso, the then medical director of the FEU Hospital and a renown surgeon (now deceased), knew me because of my strong opposition to the six-peso medical fee. He solemnly said, “Artemio, something is seriously wrong inside your abdomen because your white blood corpuscle count is over 36,000. I need to incise your belly to find out what exactly is wrong. What do you want to do, pay the full hospital bills plus the doctors’ professional fees or just pay the six-peso medical fee?”

Ruptured Appendix 

Of course, I chose to pay the six-peso medical bill. Thus, I softly replied amid my indescribably wrenching pain, “Doctor, you win. I will withdraw my opposition to the six-peso medical bill.”

And so Dr. Alfonso opened up my belly and found a ruptured appendix at the rear, left portion of my abdomen, instead of the usual front, right. He told me later in the recovery room. “Artemio, you are lucky. Your appendix was ruptured two weeks ago but the poison was contained because your fat enveloped the ruptured appendix.”

Dr. Alfonso was correct because two weeks prior to my surgery, I was – together with about 300 other student leaders from various universities and colleges – touring the Mayon Volcano after we concluded a Seminar of the National Union of Students in Naga City, which I presided over. As our tour bus climbed the volcano half-way, I was stricken with a terrible stomach ache. My friends rushed me to the only clinic open at the foot of Mount Mayon in Tabaco, Albay. The name of the clinic was St. Mary’s Maternity Clinic. All the patients there were hurting in the same body spot – the abdomen – except that in my case, I was not carrying a baby. Upon examining me, the attending doctor thought I had indigestion and gave me a spoonful of castor oil, which I immediately vomited. Because of this, the doctor injected me with a shot of morphine. I lay asleep for 24 hours. When I woke up, the pain was gone. So, I commuted to Naga where we ended the Seminar with a dance party.

Frustrations and Elations

Ladies and gentlemen, this was not the first time my life was at a real risk of termination. When I was six years old, I was stricken with dysentery in a barrio of my parent’s hometown of Candaba, Pampanga during World War II. Our country was occupied by the Japanese armed forces. There was no hospital, no medicine, not even a doctor or nurse to attend to me in the small barrio where we lived. I was given up for dead. But my mother did not surrender. She watched over me as I miraculously recovered in her arms.

I had several other bouts with serious health issues. In 1983, I was diagnosed with diabetes which, luckily, has been controlled with the help of Dr. Augusto Litonjua, whom I still see every three months. I have been operated on three times for recurring hemorrhoids. I had skips in my heart rhythm, failed the ECG, the 2D Echocardiography and the treadmill stress tests but, thank God, passed the angiogram exam. My consummate cardiologist, Dr. Dante Morales, assured me that my heart arteries were/are okay and that I happen to have a rare, natural skip in my heart beat. In 1949, when I was an elementary school pupil, I peddled newspapers while aboard the rear of speeding jeepneys in Espana Street, Sampaloc, Manila. One morning, I was literally ran over by an army six-by-six truck. As I jumped from the jeepney, I lost my balance and laid flat on the cemented road. Fortunately, the oncoming six-by-six truck had high road clearance – enough for my lean and thin body to slide under its axles and escape serious injury and death.  

I attribute all these near-death experiences to our Lord Jesus Christ even if I did not know Him then. Though born a Catholic, I had no formal catechetical instruction. However, I have come to realize now that our Lord and his human mother, Mary, were responsible for all my miraculous escapes from death, and that was probably because I have not accomplished His mission for me. Indeed, looking back, I can only ascribe whatever I may have achieved in my humble life and career to Jesus Christ who was, and is, ever present during my illnesses and healings, my trials and triumphs, my frustrations and elations, my defeats and victories.

Praying to and Trusting God

And this humble confession leads me to my first advice: Always pray and trust God. He is present everywhere all the time even if we may not know or recognize Him. Evils, devils, defeats, difficulties and obstacles there will always be. Our prayer should not be for God to remove or banish them. Our prayer should be for God to grant us the strength and the will to forsake the devil, to triumph over evil, to solve difficulties and to hurdle obstacles. God will always be there to help us, to strengthen us and to enable us to live healthily, happily and mightily – in His own way, in His own time, not in our way, not in our time.

As the Lord has said (Isaiah 55:8-10), “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. For just as from the heavens the rain and snow comes down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

To repeat, I was neither catechized nor evangelized till I reached FEU during my college days. I was introduced to Jesus Christ for the first time by our FEU chaplain, the late Fr. Michael Nolan, who taught me four basic prayers, the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary,” the “Glory Be” and the FEU Prayer which I can still recite from memory up to now: “Direct, O God, we beseech Thee all our actions by Thy holy inspiration and help us on by Thy gracious assistance, so that every prayer and work of ours may begin with Thee and by Thee be happily ended. Amen.”

In fact, I so loved this nondenominational FEU prayer that it became one of the bases of the Centennial Prayer of the Courts, composed in 2001 to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Supreme Court. The Centenary Executive Committee of the celebration, which I had the honor of chairing, composed this prayer from a draft of then Chief Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr. It runs as follows: “Almighty God, we stand in Your holy presence as our Supreme Judge. We humbly beseech You to bless and inspire us so that what we think, say, and do will be in accordance with Your will. Enlighten our minds, strengthen our spirit, and fill our hearts with fraternal love, wisdom and understanding, so that we can be effective channels of truth, justice, and peace. In our proceedings today, guide us in the path of righteousness for the fulfillment of Your greater glory. Amen.”

This prayer is 20 years old and it is still recited faithfully in the Supreme Court and other courts throughout the country.

Working With Competence and Care

And now for my second advice: Work, work, work with competence and care as you begin your profession or vocation. I know that the FEU-NRMF has been, and continues to be, the source of knowledgeable and ethical doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, who have not only topped the national board exams but who have also become much-sought-after experts in various medical centers here and abroad. Those ahead of you have blazed a pathway of competence and diligence which I am sure you will follow and even surpass. So, I will not tarry too long on the competence part of my two “Cs.”  

Let me however stress, the second C – care. A Filipino billionaire – now deceased, who headed one of the biggest business conglomerates in our country – told me that he was confined in a hospital in Houston, Texas, USA for a heart by-pass and a kidney transplant. He said that he regretted having gone to the USA for his surgery, and that he should have just stayed in a Philippine hospital because, in this very expensive American medical facility, he could not be visited except during specific hours and days, unlike here in our country where family and loved ones are given more freedom to visit and even stay in the adjacent bedrooms. Moreover, he complained that the American doctors and nurses viewed him merely an object to be studied, to be operated on and to be monitored while recuperating in a hospital room, and not as a human being with emotions of fear, loneliness and desperation. He longed for the companionship, care and love of Filipino doctors, nurses and other professionals.

May I also tell you a relevant story of a Filipino surgeon, Horatio “Cabby” Cabasares, who, in 1973, migrated to the small town of Perry, Georgia, USA, with a population of only 19,000. He served with competence, dedication and an abundant demonstration of the characteristic Pinoy traits of caring, sincerity, empathy and affection. After he died of COVID-19 on December 16, 2020, he was hailed as a hometown hero and honored with a bronze plaque installed in the hospital where he served. This bronze plaque read in part as follows: “Dr. Cabby’s cheerful smile, caring heart, and encouraging words will not be forgotten, and his faithful dedication to others will continue to inspire… the community for years to come.”

Let me close with a summary of my two-point advice. The first is: Pray and trust God always, and the second is: Work competently and caringly. These two pieces of advice are encapsulated in one of my favorite adages: “Pray as though everything depended on God; work as though everything depended on you.” Let me say that again, “Pray as though everything depended on God; work as though everything depended on you.”

Maraming salamat po at maligayang bati muli sa inyong patatapos.