A FEW days before Christmas, I tagged along with our school's student council officers and student volunteers who were conducting their annual outreach activity at the Davao Medical Center (DMC) Hospital's pediatric ward.

The students had planned to distribute more than a hundred square pillows, the kind the neatly puffs up when pulled out of their plastic wraps. The pillows were all decorated with colourful cartoon characters children would be familiar with like Barney, Spongebob, Nemo, and Disney princesses.

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The student officers also prepared coloring books and crayons that would be given with the pillows. All these gifts were packed in huge nondescript cartons nearly bursting at their seams that we lugged through the muggy halls and stairs of DMC on the way to the children's ward.

The group was excited but a bit antsy. We were not really sure what to expect or what would happen since the hospital staff who usually helped facilitate the outreach were not there. DMC was having their annual Christmas Party so our group's leader, Tyron, was just informed where to go, and that was pretty much it.

Left on our own devices, we had a simple system. We decided to have a central station for distribution at the lobby of the pediatrician floor where we opened the cartons and gave our students pillows, coloring books and crayons. They were instructed to then enter different rooms in the pediatrician unit, give the patients one of each item, and return to the station after the items have all been distributed.

But things did not go so simply. Who knew what mayhem Spongebob Squarepants and Cinderella could unleash? It did not take five minutes before our station was mobbed by adults all clamoring for a square pillow. Tyron and I were the only adults in our group and we tried to reason with the crowd to go back to their rooms since the students will be the ones distributing the gifts and we did not want confusion or people getting two pillows while others got none. Some went back to their rooms, either grumbling or reminding us to make sure they get their pillow, but most wouldn't budge. It was not until we threatened to stop distributing the pillows that they went back to their rooms and we had a moment of quiet.

The students seemed a bit overwhelmed with what happened. One even whispered that it was scary. They didn't expect such a crowd to surround our little station. They seemed hesitant to continue walking to the rooms and distributing the items, especially since some adults were literally yanking the pillows right from their arms. Some were also very aggressive, angry, and impatient.

The rest of the time spent distributing was a bit of a haze. We kept things light within our group by joking around and encouraging each other, but I knew the students were a bit put off by the behavior of most watchers they encountered in the pedia ward. I wasn't sure how to explain it to them either. It was frustrating. I too was a bit angry with the adults in the ward. The teacher in me wanted the adults to behave, wait their turn, and keep quiet. I wanted to tell the people in DMC, "Buti nga binibigyan kayo ng regalo! Pwede behave?"

Then someone approached our distribution station and started thanking the group for the project. He began telling us how he had traveled all the way from Butuan just to make sure his brother who had dengue gets proper care. He said he used to teach philosophy in college, but times got rough and now he didn't have emergency funds to pay the medicine. He shared that the night before he had to 'line up' to get government financial assistance along with countless others. He said that at first he wanted to do things the orderly way but since everyone else wasn't he felt he had no choice but to elbow himself into the group, not caring anymore who he'd push off or hit, as long as HE gets the assistance. "Dito kasi, kung tatayo-tayo ka lang, walang mangyayari sa 'yo."

When he said that, it made me understand better what had happened during our outreach in the pedia ward. It is not that the people there were ill-mannered, but more that they were used to a certain system to ensure they get what they needed.

A friend of mine who is a physical therapist shared that if you work in a government hospital, you'll see how woefully inadequate our health care system is. Some people will die not because there is no cure, but because they don't have the P1,000 to buy the necessary medicine. If it's for survival, people WILL brush aside any ideas of behaving, waiting their turn and keeping quiet and will try as hard as they can to get the assistance they desperately need.

The square pillows were not medicine, but in a way, it is understandable how some adults wanted to make sure their child gets a gift for Christmas, no matter what it took. I had to check myself. Was I in DMC to make myself feel good? Was I there to feel that I have done my good deed for the day? Or was I there for the people IN the hospital? Was I there because God wants us to love others as we love ourselves?

It was easy for me to judge the people in the pedia ward, when what was really needed was for me to try to understand them. It's never easy to realize how ugly one's own character can be. It was a bitter medicine to swallow, but a necessary one in order for me to learn.

Jocy L. So-Yeung teaches at Davao Christian High School.