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New Beginnings

Maribeth is 35 years old. The third daughter of a brood of twelve, she gave up the pursuit of her own dreams to support her family. A few years ago she left the Philippines to work overseas as a domestic helper. Toiling through work, homesickness and the demands of working in a foreign country she was able to send money home as the breadwinner of her family.

Through her hard work she supported not only herself, but her siblings and parents as well. She bore the educational expenses of her siblings so that two of her siblings have finished college degrees and now are helping the family as well. But as Maribeth earned more than the average Filipino, she remained the family breadwinner. She couldn’t stop even if she wanted to. Two other siblings were relying on her for their future.

Tragedy struck Maribeth and her family last year when she experienced back pain after she slipped and fell to the floor. Maribeth was unable to even walk, let alone work. The pain was unimaginable for her so she went to seek medical help. The doctors in the Middle East found out what was wrong. Her spine shifted forward at the base of the low back area, pressing on her nerves. When an estimate for the cost of her surgery was made, her employers refused to pay for her medical expenses. It was cheaper for them to hire a new domestic helper.

Marilyn was sent home broken and in pain. The tables were now turned. Her family was now spending for her. Her two siblings stopped their education to find work to help support the family and their bedridden sister.

For a year the family was slowly being drained of their financial resources. They went from hospital to hospital seeking treatment but to no avail. They could not afford the hospital bills and the intended spinal implants which were roughly to equivalent to four semesters in college.

Finally exhausted of their funds, they turned to the local regional government hospital, my hospital, Davao Medical Center (DMC).  Government hospitals are given a bad rap in the Philippines. They are thought of as understaffed and underequipped compared to their private hospital counterparts. Especially in the field of Orthopedics where well trained personnel and state of the art equipment are scarce.

But the DMC is an exception. With the best spine surgeons in the region heading the Orthopedic Department, there is no shortage of talented manpower. The only problem remaining was the absence of expensive spine implants. All spine implants are imported from outside the country, and are difficult to come by.

When I started my residency training in DMC, patients like these would have waited a long time to have an operation. Residents like me would be lucky enough to be able to even see a spine surgery once every few months. Spine surgeries were so rare that they were reserved for the senior residents who were intimidated by the complex procedures. As a result, even though we had the skilled consultant staff, without the implants our spine experience was almost non-existent.

The problem with spinal implants all but came to an end late last year. Dr. Gilbert Cauilan, one of our spine consultants, met Dr. Dheera Ananthakrishnan at last year’s SIGN conference in Richland, Washington, USA. Dr. Ananthakrishnan was working on a project called Orthopaedic Link. We didn’t know at that time what it was all about, but we were given the feedback that it was a venue to where we could get a replenishable supply of spine implants. At first we were skeptical. Nobody is that crazy, we thought.

Our doubts were erased when an Orthopaedic Link team came to visit DMC earlier this year. When we were able to fulfill the qualifications as a recipient of the program, we were greeted with a sight that I would never forget. The day the Medtronic instrumentation arrived, it was like Christmas.

Through Orthopaedic Link we received an entire set of instrumentation and implants for spine surgery. The spine program of the hospital suddenly had the capacity to treat patients like Maribeth without taxing them further. We received gifts. Gifts we could give to others.

A few days ago, Maribeth received the treatment that she was denied a year ago. She is no longer in pain and is able to feel her legs again. I asked her what she would say to the people who gave her implants. She wrote me a short note in the native vernacular.

Dear Sir,
Good morning to you! I would like to thank for choosing me as a recipient of your stainless for my operation so I can stand up and walk again. I hope you can help more people and I again would like to thank you for the helping poor people like me. God be with you always.

Maribeth will be discharged in a few days. In a few months she hopes to be able to support her family again. We have seen her improving everyday. The residents, myself included, are no longer intimidated by spine cases. With Orthopaedic Link helping us, we know we can make a difference in the lives of patients like Maribeth. It has inspired us. Even to the point that one day, we may become spine surgeons as well.

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