Dacawi: Remembering a doctor gentle on our mind

Ramon Dacawi

THE oak casket was lowered a little after half-past noon on March 2010, at Heaven’s Garden. It’s that bluff at the side of the Loakan Airport, partly overlooking Green Valley where Dr. Asela Talco-Casem grew up.

Bathed in full sunlight, the mourners from all walks silently gathered around the freshly dug patch. A mild wind blew in from the south, later nudging up and away white balloons released into the air. After casting flowers and soil into the grave, the crowd spread into the shades in a picnic of sorts celebrating the life of a sister, friend, guide and moral compass.

There was no formal graveside ceremony. Personal prayers were either murmured or silently offered. The formal final rites, together with the biblical readings, were done in church and during the wake. My mind turned to James 2:18-18, a passage seldom quoted. It’s about faith, which is dead if not accompanied by action.

I never heard Asela quote scripture. She lived it, as those who knew her knew. Among them were those who, over the years came and leaned on her and her staff in their valiant struggle to still and pacify their minds, in and out of the psychiatry department of the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center. That’s why some of them also came to pay their respects.

At the wake, Dr. Josefina Laza-Luspian, Asela’s friend and nephrologist, failed to fight back tears. She inched her way to the side of the casket and whispered a request: “Asela, ipasam man kaniak dayta ugalim.” When he heard the news, Dr. Tony Tactay, orthopedics chief of BGHMC, cut short his conference and took the earliest flight for home.

Medical center chief, Dr. Manny Factora confided to Dingky, Asela’s husband, the difficulty finding a healer approximating the grace, quiet tenacity, competence, belief, understanding and compassion with which Asela anchored the transformation of the psychiatry ward into the honest-to-goodness department it is today.

Asela went against the grain of convention. She had opted to serve in neurology but found the only vacancy was in psychiatry. She took it, fully aware of the meager givens in a field most stressful, least materially rewarding, most neglected and still misunderstood.

Until the end, she pushed her cart to maximum effectiveness - with doggedness, belief and innovation. As slum teacher Efren Penaflorida, deservingly hailed recently as CNN’s Hero of the Year, did and continues to do so. For Asela, it meant leading the staff to scrubbing clean the pungent-smelling, depressively dark ward at the basement of the communicable diseases building. It meant giving away expensive professional drug samples as fast as they came, or digging into her pockets to sustain the doses of the poor who couldn’t find refuge in the private mental health facilities. It meant canceling a well-paying, less stressful supervisory slot offer Down Under, in favor of the quixotic, continuing challenge of heightening public consciousness and understanding and making a dent on the stigma attached to those who suffer from mental illness.

For one who listens for hours almost every day to patients’ narrations of their fears and images needed to figure out course of their healing, stress management has to be personally practiced as well as advised. It requires inner strength to listen to others spill out their blues and doubts, with the healer having no outlet to share her own.

“I never heard my sister complain,” her elder brother Alberto, a teacher in civil engineering, noted after the funeral mass. Others who spoke shared the view, with some admitting they, too, found therapy confiding to Asela, who listened and offered advice when they sought it.

Beneath the calm, the positive demeanor, Asela had to bear an off-and-on reminder of her own fragility. Only a few outside family and close friends knew she got another lease on life 17 years ago. That was when her kidneys failed. All her brothers and sisters rushed to her side, all wanting to be matched for a transplant. The specialists eventually chose Alberto as donor.

The gift allowed her to make a difference, her work disrupted only by occasional procedures and medication to prevent organ rejection. In April 2009, she found therapy in remote Tinoc town in Ifugao. She traveled with her trainees to the seat of Kalanguya culture to help villagers cope with the psychological impact of their futile attempt to rescue and save the passengers of that ill-fated presidential plane that slammed into their mountain early Christmastime.

Coming home, she told Dingky she was deeply impressed by the honesty and lack of guile of tribal folk. She learned the villagers had secured and returned intact the valuables, including substantial cash, strewn around the wreckage, even as they had to do the traditional cleansing ritual.

Asela was of the same mold as the culture-bound villagers she visited.

So was former Budget Secretary Emilia Boncodin. Both women worked with brilliance, innovation and passion. Both brushed aside material acquisitiveness. Both left a legacy that debunked the perception and stigma attached to government as the bastion of the mediocre, the uncaring, the corrupt and uncivil.

Boncodin, also succumbed to complications of renal failure, five years after her kidney transplant. She was 55. Asela was back to dialysis recently. Hours before she was to travel for her second implant, with cousin Anton Talco as donor, she had a heart seizure. She was 51.

Asela’s daughter, Marie Joy (Babeng), spoke for her dad, brothers Mark Allan (Bugoy) and Christian Marlowe (Budoy) and the Talco-Casem clan.

“Even as I express the gratitude of (our family), the only way we can substantially thank you is to pass on your kindness to others,” Babeng, a young nurse, said. “I guess that’s the lesson Mama taught us, quietly and gently, often without the need for words. In so doing, she passed on the strength she knew we needed most in times like this.” (E-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).