Two weeks ago, when I wrote about my oncologist, I remembered someone else who had such a passion to become a doctor that he left family and country just to become one.
He said that even from childhood, he wanted to be a surgeon. He once cut his foot on the serrated lid of a tin can, and without telling his mother, attempted on his own to sew it up.
In high school, all he thought of was how he could get into medical school, but his family wasn’t well off, and his father suggested that he take another course they could afford. Then one day, he read an article in the papers about how the USSR was looking for doctors and was offering medical scholarships. Those who qualified in the local interviews would be brought to Hong Kong for the entrance exams and, if they passed, would immediately fly to the USSR.
He applied, passed the interview, and the schedule was set for the Hong Kong flight.
He was still in his late teens and had never been on a plane before, and, at the airport, tried to keep his emotions in check—for if he passed the exams he knew that he might never see his parents or family again. You see, there were no diplomatic relations between the Philippines and communist nations, and once he stepped on communist soil, he couldn’t return.
With all this turmoil in his heart, the desire to become a doctor still prevailed.
He topped the Hong Kong exams, and was sent to the medical university in Ukraine.
He had a very difficult time. He had to learn how to speak, read and write in their language. His books, lessons and homework were a struggle to comprehend. And he was homesick and lonely. It took almost a year to communicate via airmail with his parents, as his letters would be forwarded to the US and sent to Manila, and that same route would be taken for their replies. The food and culture were alien to him. He recalls how he missed Elvis and pop music, as ballet was all there was to watch.
Despite all this, he graduated at the top of his class!
Then, God’s grace set in. Imelda Marcos went on an unofficial visit to the USSR and he, as a Filipino, was introduced to her. Through her, relations were established, and he was able to get a special visa to return to the Philippines.
But when he got back, his degree was not accepted, and he was required to undergo two more years of study. He was to relearn much, as all the medical terms he knew were in Ukranian!
But when he applied, there were no vacancies in Metro Manila medical schools, so he went to the province to try his luck.
About a week before classes began, he received a telegram asking him to report to the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital, as one of the enrollees had drowned, and the application pulled out from the pile was his.
However, the slots for surgery were filled, and the only opening was in the burn unit, which everyone avoided. So the burn unit it was for him. As he worked with these victims, he realized how important it was to help alleviate their suffering, and he focused on reconstructive surgery.
It wasn’t smooth sailing, as the NBI would tail him and even enter the operating room to watch over him. When he graduated, he couldn’t afford the P1 million hospital affiliation fee, so he got a small room on the second floor of the Brown Derby across PGH.
His brilliance, focus, determination and hard work were recognized, and he began to receive official invitations to seminars abroad, but the NBI wouldn’t allow him to travel. Only many years later was the ban lifted.
These many years of hardship and trials served to strengthen his spirit and resolve, and today he is head of the Cosmetic and Reconstructive Unit of St. Luke’s. Oh, and yes, did I mention how handsome he is? Even in his surgical greens, Dr. Rene Valerio is to sigh for!