Jess Kevin Gultiano anticipated lots of field work when he finished medical school at Mindanao State University in Marawi in June 2019. As a scholar of the Department of Health’s Doctors to the Barrios program, he was trained to practice health care in rural communities.
Growing up in the province in Padada, Davao del Sur, Gultiano, 28, also had it in his heart to give back to people who experience pains in accessing healthcare. He has seen people’s difficulties and he wants to do something about these.
His enthusiasm always had him geared up and ready for service. He showed this around the clock during his internship in Mindanao’s biggest public hospital, Southern Philippines Medical Center. The hospital attracts patients from all over Mindanao. Gultiano’s spirits were high and his heart was full doing public service.
But things took an unpredictable turn when COVID-19 happened. Like his peers, he initially had the perception that COVID-19 was just going to be another kind of cold. “We didn’t think it was going to be this elaborate,” he said.
As the March 2020 lockdowns came, the days ahead came with uncertainty. COVID-19 affected his review for the board exam, which was eventually rescheduled. COVID-19 also changed plans and areas of deployment.
The days ahead unraveled with surprise—but Gultiano was always prepared. The next thing he knew, a bigger role was presented to him. His area of assignment is in the southernmost part of the Davao Region by the Celebes Sea, with Indonesia at the horizon.
This deployment was unexpected and presented a whole new challenge for him. Over time, he learned that this also came with a unique sense of fulfillment.
In one of the southernmost points of the Philippines lies Sarangani, Davao Occidental. The municipality comprises three islands that are at least 90 minutes away from the nearest port.
Gultiano filled in the role of municipal health officer starting March 8, 2021. His work focused on COVID-19 response. He had to keep up with the pandemic needs and oversee health care for a population of over 20,000 in the municipality.
Challenges were magnified by COVID-19. Access to resources became difficult because of logistics, like infrequent boat transportation to the nearest city centers and limited movement of goods.
On a good day, it takes at least eight hours of land and water travel to ferry vaccines from Davao City’s airport to the Sarangani Municipal Health Office. Gultiano was daunted.
“I prayed a lot,” he said. “I sought advice and best practices from doctors who came before me.”
As it turns out, having a heart for service is not enough. Resilience and guts were also required.
“I can’t be too ideal with my practice,” he said. “I had to adapt and make health care relatable to people from all walks of life.”
His journey taught him to appreciate differences in cultures and beliefs. Through this, he is able to meet people halfway and connect with them with meaning.
Gultiano meets people hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine during his daily interactions. The hesitation comes from religious beliefs or misinformation. During these instances, he takes the extra mile to make them feel that he is an ally and a shoulder to lean on.
Health education plays an important role in his work. This keeps people from literally running away from him and closing doors on his team when they do barangay visits.
For health workers, barangay visits are not a walk in the park . . . or the beach. They have to power through dizzying boat rides on the sea ambulance. They endure big waves to venture from one barangay to another. Experiencing a vortex (sulog, as the locals call it) is just another day at work. Barangay vaccinations continue whether mobile or on site, and in any weather condition.
Other health programs
Apart from COVID-19 work, Gultiano also gets busy with many other health programs for youth, women and the municipality’s general population.
He takes things one day at a time to realize his vision for his newfound community. “I want people to know that there is health care for them.”
Gultiano’s experiences on the island taught him resilience and so much more about his medical practice. He gets real with this advice for aspiring doctors: There will be big responsibilities and lots of expectations, but the raw desire for public service and to change people’s lives will fuel your drive.
On his days off, Gultiano joins his team for hikes around the islands. “We would look for fresh coconut to make salad for everyone to share,” he said.
But even as he enjoys recreation, he never forgets his purpose. His hikes help him reach far-flung sitios for health education. He is driven to contribute to a bigger effort in healthcare no matter the distance and challenge. He delights in seeing youths come forward to participate or support his health programs. In the recent simultaneous National Vaccination Days, Gultiano saw hundreds of youths trek to vaccination sites, eager to get their shot. He joins them in hoping for better days ahead. —CONTRIBUTED