Perseverance personified

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

DURING the graduation ceremony at the PICC in Manila of the Manila Central University-Filemon D. Tanchoco Medical Foundation (MCU-FDTMF) College of Medicine on April 18, 1994, Gemeniano F. Leal, a jeepney driver from a remote barangay of Magpet in Cotabato Province, was the graduation speaker.

How an aging jeepney driver became a graduation speaker of soon-to-be doctors of medicine is the story of perseverance that spanned years and distances of the jeepney driver’s son, Dr. Isagani S. Leal.

“Maraming umiyak noon dahil sa binibigkas ng father ko, yung ang mga gabi ay pilit ginawang araw para lang matustusan ang aking pag-aaral,” Dr. Leal said.

Dr. Leal is Asia’s only musculoskeletal expert who had to be a waiter and dish washer in Tropical Hut while in pre-med in between washing cars for a fee, a room boy of Anito Hotel while in Medical School, and being his own delivery boy in a small business he ran while already a practicing doctor in Cotabato City.

Dr. Leal today is the resident sports doctor of all the teams of multibillionaire Manny V. Pangilinan -- the Team Azkals and Talk and Text included, who specializes in non-invasive treatment of sports injuries. Meaning, he’ll heal you without cutting you up.

His most common patients in this specialized field, however, are old people suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

Before becoming what he is today, he made a name of sorts as the doctor of poor overseas Filipino workers in Israel during the four years of his residency training for musculoskeletal medicine between 2004-2008 in Tel Aviv.

He’s now a regular visiting specialist of Alexian Brothers Health and Wellness Center in Matina, Davao City starting this year, and his initial once-a-month visit is now extended to twice a month because of the bulk of patients that he gets.

“Yung unang clinic ko dito noong February, hanggang 10 o’clock kami ng gabi,” he said.

He hails from Barangay Pangao-an in Magpet where his mother, Julieta Leal, was the pioneering public school teacher.

“We had to walk seven kilometers to school every day,” he said during an interview in the clinic he shares with fellow doctor and City Councilor Rene Elias Lopez at the Alexian Brothers last week.

From that remote barangay, he finished high school at the Notre Dame in Magpet where the brothers noticed his unusual intelligence and thus invited him to become a seminarian.

He did become one, except that in his years as a seminarian he noticed that his grades in Theology and Philosophy were among the lowest, while his grades in the sciences were extremely high.

He decided to take up BS Psychology at the Far Eastern University (FEU) because of this, just to test the waters and check out if indeed, the world of medicine is his calling.

Upon graduation, the family had to discuss long and hard if they can afford medical school.

He persisted and thus entered MCU after garnering a 99+ rating in the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT).

Medical School was a test of his and his family’s mettle and determination. There wasn’t enough money to feed the family, much less pay for tuition.

“Yung pinakabata kong sister umiiyak na ‘yun kasi hanggang kelan ba raw an asin yung ginagamit naming pang-toothpaste. Sabi naman ng nanay, konting tiis lang at matatapos rin ang iyong manong,” he said.

Thus he worked as a room boy in Anito Hotel.

It took him two years to finish first year medicine because of this.

For his second year, his mother retired as a public school teacher and so he had enough to pay full tuition from her retirement pay.

But that was all it can pay.

The third year, he had to earn his allowance to cover board and lodging and school needs again while his father saves up for his tuition, thus it again took him two years again to hurdle.

On the fourth year, his father was supposed to have saved enough for his tuition, except that a fellow worker in the motel urged him to invest the money with the business of the fellow worker’s wife in Baclaran; to add a little more in the savings he had.

The woman swindled him, and never returned his money. While it seemed like it was the end of his dream, he decided not to force the woman to pay up.

“Wala rin namang mapapambayad yun,” he said.

With no money to pay his tuition, he asked their school registrar to allow him to enroll while he still has to earn his tuition as he explained what happened to his tuition money. He had news clippings from tabloid newspapers that told his story and he showed this to the registrar. The registrar called the dean but did not give any assurance about his request.

“After two days, pinatawag ako sa Dean’s Office. Akala ko, hindi na talaga ako makakapagpatuloy.”

But it was good news he got. Dean Lutgarda V.C. Quito told him she was able to contact some MCU alumni in Missouri, USA, who committed to shoulder his tuition fee plus a P500/month allowance.

“Pinagkasya ko yun; ang kinakain ko sarsa, rice, gulay lang, ibubuhos mo lang yung sarsa sa kanin,” he said.

But that’s not the end of it.

In fourth year, you have to be an intern, and that will require more money, which he does not have and cannot earn while working as an intern.

Checking out the possible hospitals he can serve, he learned that Chinese General Hospital is the only hospital that offers free board and lodging plus allowance to interns.

Thus, instead of writing down three hospitals of choice to work as an intern, as required in their applications, he only wrote one: Chinese General Hospital.

During interview, he was asked why; he said it was the only one that he can afford to go.

His academic record was scrutinized and was found wanting.

“Sinabi ko na kung nabigyan lang ako ng equal opportunity tulad ng mga classmates ko na full-time students, mas maganda naman siguro ang grades ko,” he said, and went on to explain that he had to work for his keep.

Like a door closing on him, the administrator said they only accept interns who speak Chinese because most of their patients are Chinese. Not discouraged, he asked to be given one month to learn.

He learned and returned to the hospital, pushing to be accepted once again.

“Sabi ko, ito lang ang pwede kong pasukan dahil may free board and lodging at allowance kaya’t sa ayaw niyo’t sa gusto, dito talaga ako papasok.” After internship and graduation, the board.

Before the exams, he was praying to hard, asking the Lord for help as he cannot see himself working and saving again for another board.

He passed with an unimpressive grade of 75 percent.

“At least, one click lang, hindi na kailangang ulitin,” he said.

With his license, he went to Cotabato City to practice, that was where he met his wife.

Segue.

While waiting for him to attend to all his patients at the Alexian, this writer was seated in front of two women patients waiting for their turn who were speaking in grammatically correct Tagalog but had this accent that was definitely not from Luzon.

Thus, during the course of the interview, I couldn't help but ask where those women were from.

“Yan ang Tagalog ng Cotabato,” he said. One of the women is the daughter of his “ninang sa kasal.”

While running a small clinic in Cotabato, he said, he also set up a business selling consumer goods, which he delivers himself.

One of his regular customers was this lady, who at one time noticed that the receipt he handed over had “Isagani S. Real” as proprietor of “ISLeal Merchandise.”

“Kaano-ano mo si Doctor Leal,” the lady asked.

When told that he is that Doctor Leal, the lady was shocked because he was more like a kargador than a doctor and businessman and that flustered the lady for treating him like the kargador that he looked like.

They’ve been friends since then, and she became his “ninang” when he got married.

In 2004, he had the chance to apply for a scholarship in Israel for a specialization. Of the 16 who applied, only two of them passed.

It was the only available specialization course where he did not have to spend anything, he said. But it meant weathering the unpredictable peace and order condition in that small country, that was more often at war than in peace, and being fluent in Hebrew. Like learning Chinese as an intern, he also learned Hebrew just to get the scholarship.

In his four years in Israel, he was writing a column for a Filipino-Iraeli magazine as his job in between earning his specialization. Through this column, he got to know of the medical problems of OFWs, the most challenging of which were OFWs who had no working visas.

“Marami silang ganun doon,” he said.

He went around on home visits doing consultations, ultrasound, and treatment of OFWs.

“Naisip ko kasi, itong mga taong ito pag lumabas ito at nakita ng authorities, madedeport sila, mawawalan ng trabaho, at merong isang pamilyang mawawalan ng pangkabuhayan, mga batang hindi na makakaeskwela,” he said. “Wala ring ibang malalapitan ang mga taong ito.”

In between school, he went “from north to south” of Israel to treat.

Life wasn’t good to him at home. He lost his wife to leukemia while he was in Israel leaving a void within; here he was, a doctor saving lives and yet he cannot save his wife.

He returned after his scholarship to a daughter, who did not know who he was. His daughter was not even a year old when he lost his wife.

But, life has been treating him well since.

His mother died just after he became a doctor but not yet making a name for himself. His father, now 80 years old, now lives with him in Quezon City.

He owns the Center for Musculoskeletal Science-Asia on West Avenue, Quezon City, and has 18 physical therapists, one assistant doctor and three visiting doctors under his employ.

But he is not swimming in money and is not inclined to be.

The reason: He is paying a lot for his state-of-the-art equipment that can only be had from Israel, but most of all, he’s not charging much. He just bills his patient according to what it takes to cure.

He recalls how Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn sought him out after spending over P350,000 to fix a slip disc in a hospital in Manila and not getting any relief from it afterwards.

After just a short period for treatment, he said, Hagedorn was cured and was just billed P38,000.

Since he refused to ask more, Hagedorn just gifted him a lot in Puerto Princesa.

Despite his comparatively very low fees, student athletes still get 50 percent discount.

“Hindi ako naga-take advantage kasi it’s a gift from God. Kung mag-take advantage ako, baka kunin sa akin; pwedeng makadisgrasya ng pasyente, matanggalan ng lisensya,” he said.

This is the very reason why he is holding clinic in Alexian Brothers. He admitted that upon graduation from Israel, he intended to set up practice in Alexian and even shipped out all his equipment there, but he was prevailed upon to settle in Manila because of his specialization and thus had to ship out his equipment again.

But his heart is still with service to the poor and so he’s back, setting up clinic twice a month now to serve those who need him in Visayas and Mindanao.

“Ang Alexian merong moral and spiritual responsibility hindi lang basta profit. Feeling ko, mas belong ako dito,” he said. In his future plans is setting up his own center here to cater to the bulk of his patients from the two island groups.

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