PH Red Cross supporting 12 medicine scholars
Growing up with no immediate access to health facilities in her small fishing community in Malolos, Bulacan, second year medicine student Charmaine Alba decided to become a doctor, hoping to be the bearer of universal health care to her village.
In Barangay Calero, where she was raised, the service was practically nonexistent. “In our barrio, health services are not a priority. Our barangay health center opens just once a week, so it can’t cater to the residents,” Alba said in an Inquirer interview.
The 23-year-old student of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine (UPCM) recalled that people from their barangay had to take a 30-minute walk or ride a boat just to get medical attention at the provincial hospital located in the city or at nearby private hospitals, where the fees are often beyond their reach.
“When I was a kid, I never went through regular check-ups with a pediatrician. It’s something you would expect as a child. But I wasn’t exposed to that,” she said.
It wasn’t until Alba got into senior high school when it dawned on her that her community lacked what she considered a basic human right. “It opened my eyes to the reality that many Filipinos don’t have access to health care. It’s what I saw in our own barrio, and it’s what I was seeing in our country’s health sector,” said Alba. “Health is a right. Regardless of one’s [social] status, everyone should have equal access to health services.”
Even after finishing a biology course in UP Manila, taking up medicine did not cross her mind during her undergraduate years because she knew that studying to become a physician in the Philippines does not come cheap.
But in just a few years’ time, Alba may become the first-ever doctor to hail from her small barrio.
She was chosen as one of the 12 UPCM students given a scholarship last year by the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), the country’s premier humanitarian agency.
“A big thank you to PRC because the young Charmaine never thought of pursuing medicine because all her life she knew that it is too expensive to become a doctor. But PRC gave light and hope to my dream of helping other people,” Alba said, adding that a big financial burden has been lifted from her and her parents, a fisherman and a housewife.
Underprivileged students under the PRC grant get full scholarship, which covers tuition and laboratory and other miscellaneous fees. They also get a book allowance and a “student fund.”
According to PRC chairman and former Sen. Richard Gordon, providing scholarship grants is just one of the ways the organization can help in addressing the country’s perennial lack of doctors.
“We need doctors, principled doctors. We hope that through the scholarship grants, we can help address this issue and have more doctors for Filipinos,” Gordon said.
Dr. Gwendolyn T. Pang, the PRC secretary general, called on the scholars to “be the champion, the advocate, the walking advertisement of the PRC.”
Off to the barrios
Once Alba completes her studies and gets her license, she plans to pay it forward by serving as a PRC volunteer and going back to her hometown under the Doctor to the Barrios (DTTB) program of the Department of Health.
Should she fail to get formally assigned to her barangay, she still hopes to serve there by providing free weekly medical checkups. “I’ve been visualizing it in my head for a while now—every week, just in case I don’t get assigned there, there will be a free clinic for my kababayans.”
Going back to her roots to serve to fellow members of the Ibanag indigenous group is also the mission of Ceidy Balubal, another sophomore UPCM student and PRC scholar.
Balubal hails from Tuguegarao City, Cagayan, home to the majority of the Ibanag who originally settled at the mouth of the Cagayan River.
Describing one Ibanag settlement, she said: “While I was there, I saw that access (to health care) is still the problem … The point of entry of every city or municipal health office is the barangay, but that’s not what’s happening.”
“They instead go to private facilities where they find it difficult to pay [the fees] … when in fact, the services are free in [public] health facilities.”
The 24-year-old medicine student, who also studied public health at UP Manila, feels she has to help “empower them to make their own decisions and have more control over their health.”
“They have to trust that the public health system can support them and that there are services available to them; they should be aware of that,” Balubal stressed.
In Barangay Libag Norte where Balubal grew up, teenage pregnancy is one of the pressing concerns. She lamented how women as young as 18 years old had already gone through multiple
pregnancies, many without receiving proper medical care.
“That’s what’s frustrating …they are too shy to have a consultation so they tend to miss their first and second trimester checkups. They only go to the doctor when their baby bump is already obvious,” said Balubal.
More than finding cure Like Alba, she also wants to serve in the DTTB program.
“Being a doctor is more than just curing a patient. I want to help them before they get sick … I wish the health sector focuses more on disease prevention and be at par with other developing countries,” she said.
Of the 12 PRC scholars, four are expected to graduate in 2025 while the rest will finish medicine in 2027.
“Hopefully, in the future, with all the trust PRC has given me, I can give back to my community and help an aspiring medical student as well once I am capable of doing so,” said Balubal.
Dr. Gwendolyn Pang, PRC’s secretary general, urged the scholars to “be the champion, the advocate, the walking advertisement of the PRC.”
For Alba, she wants to be that doctor in their community anyone can easily seek help for medical care. “Even if I become just a general physician, I hope to be that person, that doctor they can turn to.”