By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – They are called “doctors of the people,” they took the road less travelled and chose to help those severely neglected and largely ignored by the government.
Dr. Remberto “Bobby” Dela Paz and Dr. Juan “Johnny” Escandor were both killed during martial law as they were working for the rural poor in the provinces. To commemorate the death anniversary and give tribute to their lives led by the two patriotic doctors, the Health Alliance for Democracy (Head) held a program last April 20 at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). The health sector also gave tribute to other martyrs and progressive health workers who continued the struggle and shared the commitment of two martyred doctors.
The activity was attended by the two doctors’ friends, former colleagues and families, as well as students and current activists. Songs were sung and poems were read out loud. One of the songs was made speficially for Dela Paz, entitled “Awit ni Bobby” (Song of Bobby).
Despite the 30 years that have passed since Dela Paz and Escandor were killed, the people they left behind still suffer anguish over their loss. Through the passage of time, no justice has been given the two doctors.
Dela Paz was killed on April 24, 1982 in Catbalogan, Samar. Escandor was killed on March 31, 1983. Escandor’s colleagues said he was abducted, tortured and then killed. His body was desecrated, his head almost shattered.
Doctor to the Barrio
(Photo by Anne Marxze D. umil / bulatlat.com)
In 1977, Dela Paz worked and practiced medicine in Samar. In an 1982 article by Alex Dacanay, it was written that Dean Florentino Herrera of the UP College of Medicine challenged the graduating students to serve the rural areas.
“She invited them to join the Rural Health Practice Program under the UP Institute of Health Sciences in Tacloban. The fun-loving Bobby thought of combining duty with frolic on unpolluted beaches, feasting of sea food for which Samar is justly famous for. Bobby was assigned to Zumarraga where he served out his rural internship as municipal health officer in 1977. Not long afterwards, he married Sylvia and both of them decided to return to Samar.”
Dr. June Pagaduan-Lopez, a classmate of Dela Paz since first year in medical school said that he was a person who did what he believed he had to do.
“He didn’t rely on ideological theories to justify what he already believed was right and what he knew he had to do. This was why he decided to work in Samar,” she said.
At the time, Samar was, as Dacanay’s article described, “A howling wilderness of poverty, exploitation, maltreatment.”
The doctor rented a clinic in the downtown of Catbalogan and Sylvia on the other hand also served as a doctor in the Samar Provincial Hospital. Based on reports, Dela Paz treated the people of Calbayog without asking for payment.
(Photo by Anne Marxze D. umil / bulatlat.com)
“The doctor was happy enough to receive P50 pesos from a patient who insisted to take his donation,” it was said.
Dela Paz’ brother, Daniel, however, said that martial law was is cruel to people like Bobby who were activist in their belief and service to the Filipino people.
“In the provinces, if the authorities knew that you were from UP, you were automatically considered subversive. If your community tax certificate stated that you were from Manila, you already ran the risk of being tagged as a member of the New People’s Army,” he said.
On April 23, 1982, unknown man killed Dela Paz in his clinic in Catbalogan. The doctor sustained multiple gunshot wounds, with one bullet entering his heart. Through his agonizing pain, the doctor was still able to describe his killer to Sylvia before he died.
“A well-built man of average height, in white t-shirt and maong pants, sporting a mustache,” the doctor told his wife with his dying breath. Despite of an order from the government to hunt down the doctor’s killer, no one was ever arrested, no suspect was ever presented.
An Approachable Doctor of the Poor
Escandor specialized in cancer after he graduated in UP College of Medicine in 1969. In July 1971 he was sent to Japan as Colombo scholar and joined the Third Seminar on Early Gastric Cancer Detection. He was already, by then, a Chief Resident at the PGH.
The following year, he became the PGH’s consultant of the Department of Radiology in PGH until he became the Head of the Research Department of Cancer Institute, also in PGH.
Dr. Orlino Talens, a friend of Escandor described him as a very good person; that he was mild mannered and that he easily got along with others.
“He had an intellectual and emotional maturity that many of us then still lacked. While the rest of us would be worrying where we would eat or hang out after anatomy class, Johnny was already planning to do greater things with his life as a doctor and as an activist.”
Daniel Dela Paz said that doctors who truly serve the people do not only determine illnesses through stethoscopes and scalpels. (Photo by Anne Marxze D. umil / bulatlat.com)
Talens added that Escandor was humble and helpful to others.
“Many of the residents in radiology department were ill-tempered. They would ask many questions before they approved a patient’s x-ray request. But Johnny was not a difficult or arrogant doctor at all. Many of the new doctors and nurses often went to him whenever they needed x-rays for their patients. He didn’t make things difficult for his fellow doctors because he knew that their patients in the PGH were mostly poor people,” he said.
Talens was with Escandor in many medical missions in different provinces until Talens was arrested after martial law was declared.
National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) consultant on the peace talks Vic Ladlad said that Escandor was in all ways “a good man.” He worked with Escandor from 1981 to 83.
“He had a strength of character that allowed him to smile even when we were facing so many difficulties. It was inspiration to work with him,” he said.
In an article in the anthology Pulang Hamtik, Escandor was also decribed as sincerely dedicated and committed doctor of the people. He frequently went to depressed communities in Manila to give the poor medical check-ups. He even volunteered to the Presidential Assistance for National Minoritiesso he could also share provide medical help to the indigenous people in Mindoro. He also established a free clinic to the residents of his hometown in Gubat, Sorsogon where became well-known and highly-respected.
But Escandor went beyond treating people’s illness. He did not separate his political beliefs from his practice of medicine. He was one of the founding members of the Kabataang Makabayan in 1964. He also helped in organizing of Sorsogon Progressive Movement and Progresibong Kilusang Medikal in 1970.
After the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1982 Escandor left PGH and went to join the armed struggle. But he did not stop from treating people.
Ladlad said Escandor was still a doctor to their comrades and most especially to the masses. “The masses loved him so dearly that they slaughter a chicken for him whenever he would pay a visit to their homes so he could have a good meal,” he remembered.
All these reasons and more made his death all the more difficult to bear for those who loved him. He was killed in an encounter between his NPA unit and Metrocom forces in Quezon City on March 31, 1983. His parents retrieved his body from the morgue and took it to Sorsogon to be buried.
The truth behind his death, however, were unclear, Talens said.
Based on the Pulang Hamtik article, an independent fact-finding mission launched by Escandor’s friends, colleagues and former professors went to Sorsogon on May 21, 1983 and exhumed the doctor’s body.They discovered that the doctor’s brain had been removed from the skull and replaced with rags, underwear and plastic. His brain and other organs were stuffed inside his stomach cavity. One of his eyeballs had been torn out and many of his bones were fractured. There were also contusions on the rest of his body.
“He did so many things and helped so many people. He would have done more and helped so many, many others if he had not been killed, ” Talens said.
“If there is one doctor who lived and practiced the College of Medicine’s mission and vision of excellence, leadership and service towards the underserved, that was Johnny. He helped the poor when he was still in PGH and his commitment all the more strengthened when he left the hospital for the country side.”
Challenge to Health Workers
As the tribute drew to a close, Dela Paz and Escandor’s former colleagues and comrades issued a challenge to health workers and students, saying that they should follow in the footsteps of the two martyred doctors and serve the poor.
Daniel Dela Paz said that doctors who truly serve the people do not only determine illnesses through stethoscopes and scalpels. “A doctor should also participate in the struggles in society and cure what ails it and the people,” he said.