The stories they told about my father | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

I remember the last time I went back to Manila. It was about 11 years ago, and I had gone to visit you. By that time, our family had settled in the United States except for you, who had opted to stay behind to continue practicing medicine in Manila.


Apart from the times when mama was in town for a few months, you lived by yourself in our house, with only the household help around to keep you company. But you seemed happy; you were doing what you most loved doing. It was your vocation, you would say.


It has been 11 years since that visit, and I still remember following your instructions at the airport. There you were, waiting for me, in your polo shirt, waving excitedly as you called out my name.


Four years later, in 2007, a mild stroke during your annual visit to New Jersey would abruptly force you to retire away from the Philippines.


The past seven years will always be special to our family, but we always knew you missed the Philippines—your friends, your students, your patients, your vocation. And we knew you desperately wanted to go back, but your frail health did not allow you to do so.


Now I am back at the airport, and you will not be there to pick me up. I am here to speak at your memorial service, 40 days after you lost your battle with diabetes. We had a solemn and touching sendoff for you in New Jersey, but you were “big” in Manila, and we received such an outpouring of sympathy from half a world away, that we felt at least one of us should be present for your 40th day memorial service.


Inspiring mentor


“Forty days” connotes a rebirth, and I am looking forward to celebrating your life with the people you had left back home, and hearing their stories about you.


When I was a young boy until the time I was a medical student, I had gotten used to people asking if I was your son. You were an inspiring mentor to many young doctors; some even considered you the reason they went into pediatrics.


Parents swore they would never bring their children to see any other pediatrician. I heard numerous stories, about how you saved a child’s life or made a house call in the middle of the night. I am ready to hear those stories again.


I am ready to share my own stories of you, too. Many considered you larger than life, but in my eyes, you were simply my papa.


When I was about 10 years old, while on vacation in Baguio, I had a severe allergic reaction, and in the middle of the night, with eyes swollen and my breathing labored, I went to your bedroom very scared. You calmly gave me medications (you always had a supply) and let me sleep with you in your bed.


As little children, we would camp out in the master’s bedroom, the only air-conditioned room in our house, and whenever “South Pacific” was on TV, you would sing “Some Enchanted Evening”  in your low, bass voice.


In your final years, on weekends, I remember seeing your figure by the doorway of your New Jersey townhouse, waiting for me to arrive, and seeing your face light up as soon as you saw me walking toward the front door. I remember watching you stand by the doorway as I drove away, and remaining there until you were just a blur in the distance.


On the day of your memorial service, I arrived at the Ateneo College Chapel early that afternoon with Tita Julie, who, with your passing, becomes the only surviving member of your family. Soon, your colleagues and students, our relatives and your friends began to arrive. I wish I could have spent time with all of them and listened to all their stories about you.




I wish I could’ve told them all my stories, papa, but the best I could do was to show them the posters we had made. Without fail, upon their first sight of your pictures, I witnessed your friends and students burst into tears.

When the service started, I took my seat at the front of the College Chapel, holding on to the piece of paper that was my eulogy, a letter addressed to you that I had written a few days after your passing.


When it was my turn to speak, I walked up to the lectern, looked around the full room and saw in front of me all these people you had met and touched, gathered together to celebrate a life that was truly well-lived.




March 23, 2014


Dear papa,


When I was in grade school, I learned a song for weekly Mass that I loved singing because the melody was so haunting and the words inspiring. It was one of my favorite Mass songs back then. It starts off rather quietly, and then builds up to a strong finish.


“In the morning of my life I shall look to the sunrise.

At a moment in my life when the world is new.

And the blessing I shall ask is that God will grant me,

To be brave and strong and true,

And to fill the world with love my whole life through.”


Our grade-school class would sing our hearts out whenever we sang that song at Mass, though we may have been too young to fully comprehend its meaning. It was only years later that I rediscovered the song and its lyrics. How exciting it is to be born into this world and have all of life’s possibilities in front of us!


Looking through your pictures, letters and videos, papa, the past 40 days I can see you in the morning of your life, as a young man with all his optimism. A young college student from the province excited about living in the big city of Manila, a freshly minted doctor embarking on a journey to America. I can see you and mama, working hard and starting a family. I can see you, at 29, bringing the whole family on a Trans-Pacific voyage back to your native Philippines to fulfill your mission to teach and to heal.


I remember that feeling myself, that of a young man in the morning of his life. How excited you must have been to have your whole life in front of you, and knowing you, asking for God’s blessings “to be brave and strong and true.”


Of course, my actual memories of you only really started when I was a little boy, and you were not quite that young anymore but an up-and-coming physician, my papa, in the noontime of your life.


I always admired your integrity; you were always true to yourself. But back then when I was growing up, there were many things I did not understand.


I did not understand why we would have to drop by Lourdes or De Ocampo for quick morning rounds with your patients before we went on a family vacation. Or why we had to hang out in your office in UST or Lungsod ng Kabataan before we went to see a movie.


I did not understand why you would drive a simple car with faulty air-conditioning in the traffic and heat of Manila while many doctors of your stature had expensive cars and even drivers. There were times that it appeared to me that you even sought the more difficult path and welcomed suffering with open arms.


I realized how many doctors-in-training looked up to you, and how many people depended on you. And, frankly, I may have felt a little jealous. As a young boy, I did not understand why we had to share you with other people. But now, I do.


Someone once told me that one should always strive to live for something larger than oneself. And as I read the heartfelt messages of your former students and friends, it has become clear to me that you, indeed, devoted your life to something larger than yourself. I feel comforted knowing that you have touched many lives, and have made a difference in the world.


Over the last few years, as you reached your twilight years, I saw you in frail health, though your spirit was always unwavering. There were quite a few close calls, when I would get ready to say goodbye. During those times, I have to confess, that song I learned in grade school would play in my mind over and over as I drove from New York to New Jersey, when I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me at the hospital. Sadly, last Feb. 12, the outcome was not the one I was hoping for.


“In the evening of my life I shall look to the sunset,

At a moment in my life when the night is due.

And the question I shall ask only I can answer.

Was I brave and strong and true?


Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?”


You can rest now, papa. Your answer should be crystal clear.


Dr. Hermogenes “Gene” Purugganan, MD. had a long, distinguished career as a pediatrician and pediatric hematologist in the Philippines. Over the course of his career he was chair and professor of pediatrics at University of Santo Tomas, and director of Philippine Children’s Medical Center and Lourdes Hospital. He was past president of Philippine Pediatric Society (PPS) and Philippine Society of Hematology. He was awarded pediatrician of the year in 2000 by the PPS. He passed away on Feb. 12, in Somerville, New Jersey, at  77.


The author, his son, is a developmental pediatrician at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.