The first SHS graduates of House of Hope

Stella A. Estremera

THE excitement of having graduated Senior High at the University of the Immaculate Conception was apparent in their faces. They had that air of pride that graduates wear, their smiles becoming bigger upon seeing the fried chicken and pizza treat.

Their parents look like senior high graduate's parents. In their Sunday's best, nothing ostentatious, but just as proud.

That's before you notice that the two young men escorting the young lady are both in crutches.

The three, Roger Rosareal Jr., 23, Arjee Cabudoy, 20, and Jovhen G. Ramirez, 18, are the first Senior High graduates of House of Hope Foundation through the help of former mayor now President Rodrigo R. Duterte. All three are child cancer survivors.

Jovhen who completed the Accounting Business and Management track is looking forward to taking up Accountancy, having a 96 percent average grade upon graduation. Roger Jr. who finished Arts and Design intends to take up a course in welding with the Technical Education Skills Development Authority (Tesda), while Arjee wants to take up a culinary course also with Tesda.

Their positive outlooks in life aren't what they had before when they were first diagnosed with cancer, all three and their parents thought they had just received death sentences.

Roger Jr. was 14 when diagnosed with the very rare Ewing's Sarcoma, a cancer of the bone. Arjee was 13 when he broke his leg and was later diagnosed to have osteosarcoma, also of the bone. Jovhen was among the three having been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at five years old.

These children have been through the worst, especially Jovhen, as she arrived at the then Davao Medical Center when there was still no House of Hope and the pediatric oncology was still just a few beds inside the pediatric unit. That was in 2006, and Johven's story was the inspiration toward the building of House of Hope, a temporary housing and education facility for child cancer patients and their families, while the children undergo treatment.

“Karton is life baya sa una (Sleeping on sheets of carton was the norm in the past),” Jovhen said in an earlier interview.

Parents of patients slept on carton sheets laid out under their children's hospital beds or outside near the automated teller machines.

It was finding out that Jovhen's mother was nursing a baby at the waiting shed outside the hospital in between running up to watch over the patient that made Dr. Mae Concepcion J. Dolendo, SPMC's pediatric oncologist and founder of House of Hope, gather friends and colleagues for the construction of the temporary home that 12 years later already has a multi-storey facility for the children's therapy and continued education.

Infants are not allowed in the hospital, not unless the infant is a patient. Jovhen's sister was not a patient, she was just a seven-month-old baby whom the mother, Josefina, cannot leave in their home in Barobo, Surigao del Sur, because she had to nurse her.

For three days, Doc Mae was looking for the mother to break the news that Jovhen had cancer. Three days, she couldn't find her, and when she asked the five-year-old patient where her mother was, the girl only said, "Naa ra man diha, Doc, dili pasudlon sa hospital (She's just there, Doc, she's not allowed inside)."

That was when Doc Mae learned that Josefina was surviving on the goodness of strangers to watch over her infant once she has been breastfed so the mother can return to her other daughter inside the hospital. The father, Bienvenido, had to stay home to earn for the family and the treatment, and attend to the other children. Jovhen is the third of five children. The eldest a boy, all others are girls.

The infant is now 13 years old, the youngest and the smallest among the brood. Jovhen believes the reason why her youngest sister is small is because she spent her first two years at the hospital, every time Jovhen had to undergo chemotherapy.

Although Doc Mae managed to convince hospital management to allow the mother and her infant to stay at the old hospital kitchen, it was just an upgrade from staying at the waiting shed. There was no living facility there.

“My youngest sister lived in the kitchen until she was two years old,” Jovhen said.

From there grew the seeds of House of Hope.

The parents who came with their children for the graduation treat at Greenwich Abreeza last March can only look back and laugh at the morose situation they were in while fighting cancer with their children.

"Miserable mi kaayo kaniadto, naa pa 'tong kagang-kagang na electric fan (Life at the hospital was miserable then, I remember that very old electric fan)," Roger Sr. said. There was just one, the parents said, that they would take turns using.

But they are one in saying that despite all the misery, there is nothing more important than ensuring that child cancer is treated.

"Istoryahan gyud dapat ang parents na patambalan gyud ang bata (Parents should be informed of the importance of treating child cancer)," Felizardo Cabudoy, Arjee's father said.

"Follow the advice of doctors kay weak sila kaayo, dapat limpyo ang palibot (their immune system is very weak, their surroundings should be kept clean)," Roger Sr. said. "Antusan ra gyud ang bata kay ang importante, mo-survive (Sacrifice for the child. What is important is that the child survives this disease)."

Their testimonies are what Doc Mae has been drumming over and over again, that child cancer is curable but early diagnosis and treatment are the key.

These three young persons are testimonies to this as they look forward to a future they would have been deprived of had their parents, despite all the financial constraints, not sacrificed for them and did just as the doctors prescribed.

Jovhen's parents are farmers in Barobo, where a large portion of the farm had to be sold when she got sick.

Roger Sr. is also a farmer growing papaya and guyabano in Antipas, North Cotabato, and earns a little more as a barangay record keeper.

Felizardo runs a mom and pop grocery.

All of them and their children only have gratitude for House of Hope and the President.

"Wala gyud mi gipabayaan ni Doc Mae og si President bisan katong mayor pa siya (Doc Mae and the President never abandoned us)," Bienvenido said.

Their children all know pain like only cancer patients will ever know, but they have learned to see the funny side of the suffering. These range from the drunken state one goes into after another round of anesthesia is administered when yet another needle inserted in their spinal canal to deliver chemotherapy or when long needles are pierced into their pelvic bones for bone marrow aspiration, the stupid things they couldn't stop themselves from saying over and over again because of this, and that "hagdanan na walay katapusan (a never ending staircase)" that is how they describe the spiraling hallucination they fall into just before they puke after chemotherapy.

As Roger Jr.'s dad says, "Ang importante, mo-survive."

More than a decade hence, and with the help of many, Davao City now takes pride in its Cancer Institute that has well-appointed wards both for children and adults, and a House of Hope that not only provides temporary shelter but continued education and therapy as well.