Monday, December 25, 2006



Amidst the litter of a Noche Buena dinner table, empty bottles and ripped gift wrappers, the guest burped: "Christmas is indigestion". Want another viewpoint? Try walking, on Christmas morning, through the children’s charity ward of a government hospital. The wife and I did.

Star lanterns and wreaths deck "Pediatrics" at the Cebu City Medical Center. But it's a different universe of match-stick limbs, emaciated features and whimpers. Each of the over 30 beds are crammed with two ill kids each – plus an anxious parent or sleepless watcher squeezed in between.

Like other fund-short and over-crowded public hospitals, CCMC serves the poorest. Patients limp in from dengue-infested slums where clean water, unlike shabu, is hard to come by. Others come from hunger-strapped barangays. This ward reminds one of what the deaf and sightless educator Helen Keller (1880-1968) once said: "The only really blind person on Christmas day is he who does not have Christmas in his heart."

Half of Bed 19 is occupied by a skin-and-bones infant, attached to an IV tube. Even the untrained eye can see the kid may not pull through. The mother grips a stack of heavily-creased prescription slips for urgently needed medicines. But the hospital pharmacy is perennially short of drugs. And she has exactly twenty pesos.

Across the aisle, the other half of Bed 8 has a four year old boy, down with pneumonia. He needs anti-biotic. "He hasn't gotten a single injection," the distraught father, a jobless laborer, explains. The little money we share with patients in Beds 19 and 8 is all we have, we explain to five others who desperately cluster around.

Yet, this is a country with of persons with great wealth. "If you know how rich you are, you are not rich," Imelda Marcos once said. "But me, I am not aware of the extent of my wealth. That's how rich we are." But our definitions of what is “necessary” are changing, says an earlier UNDP Human Development Report. "Distinction between what is luxuries and necessities is blurring." Is Viagra a necessity while anti-biotic turns into a luxury? What is human can be overwhelmed by appetites not shaped by the Christmas vision….

But "trend is not destiny". It is also possible to correct. Our distorted priorities which cause food, medicine, supplies, and even human warmth, to perennially run short. "There is enough for man's needs," Mahatma Gandhi pointed out. "But there is never enough for his greed."

A Christmas morning visit gives a "human face" to sawdust-dry data you've glanced at, between Inquirer deadlines. In infants, up to two years of age, anemia "continued to increase and is alarmingly high" (53 percent) the 6th National Nutrition Survey says – a study crippled by congressional fund cuts. Out of every ten infants, six months to one year old, six suffered from debilitating anemia.

Most of these kids are here because they lack what we take for granted: three square meals a day, clean water, a roof over our heads, schools -- even reserved plots in grass trimmed memorial cemeteries. Our children are routinely vaccinated against TB, measles, hepatitis, etc. and have orthodontists squeeze in "tin-grin" braces. Can the Christmas manager teach them to share with those who lose out in this "ovarian lottery"?

Stemming from poverty, chronic hunger unleashes anemia among pregnant and breast-feeding mothers. Almost half (44 percent) of women, on the family way, are anemic, the nutrition survey found. So, are 4 out of every 10 who breastfed. You saw them in Bed Nos. 11 and 18.

"Four times now, I've poured the water of emergency baptism on dying kids in Pediatrics, I wrote in August 1988.”I'm afraid they'll not be the last." Yesterday, a mother, by Bed No. 14, urgently tagged at my sleeve: "Please, sir. My child is very ill". Ego te baptizo….Her son was the fifth.

"Like runners, generations pass on the torch of life," Lucretius once wrote. But they also hand on the frailities. Lack of Vitamin A, iron and iodine, in mothers, saps intelligence quotients of the babies in their wombs or suckling at their breasts. IQs of poorly nourished children can be whittled down by 10 to 14 percent says the Asian Development Bank. "Cognitive loss" is 10 percent for stunted individuals and "4 percent for iodine deficient victims". Worse, that loss can not be recovered. It is irreversible.

Reduced mental capacity is not visible. So, it rarely trigger alarm bells but doors in the future slam shut for children as their learning capacities are stunted. "Their elevators don't go all the way to the top floor," the wry comment goes. But it's no laughing matter when our kids come in 37th, out of 38 countries that signed up for the International Mathematics and Science Examinations?

Exiting from "Pediatrics" into the Christmas morning sunlight, we recalled an earlier visit where we chanced across an almost totally-blind girl, singing softly to herself. She was all of five – too young to sing "of old unhappy far off things and battles long ago." Early treatment could have saved her sight, the emaciated mother explained.

But somehow, they could never scrape up enough coins for the jeepney fare to bring her to the hospital. One eye had given way; now, the second was now in danger of going.

"Christmas is the day that holds all time together", Alexander Smith writes. It also helps lift our eyes to see beyond our narrow lives. For nothing is more pathetic than those unable to see the difference between pebbles and diamonds. (We are happy to announce that Mr. Juan Mercado accepted our invitation to write for the Mindanao Examiner. He also writes for the Bohol Chronicle and many other reputable newspapers in the Philippines. Ed)

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