Heart-to-heart talks with Ninoy
(Editor’s Note: The author is an interventional cardiologist with the Baylor Health Care System in Texas in the United States. He obtained his associate in arts and doctor of medicine degrees from Far Eastern University in Manila.)
In real sense, a nation’s future lay on the operating table before me. Former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., whose life and death changed the course of Philippine history, was on the verge of a heart attack.
It was May 13, 1980, at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. The day before, I performed a heart catheterization with coronary angiography on Ninoy and determined he needed immediate surgery.
A review of his hospital records from the Philippines and my examination showed that Ninoy had had progressive coronary insufficiency for almost five months prior to admission. His exercise tolerance had gradually diminished and he experienced chest pains accompanied by shortness of breath during routine physical activities while he was in prison.
But how did I find myself on the cusp of Philippine history?
Four days earlier, I received a call at 2 a.m. It was Cory Aquino calling from the Philippines.
I still vividly recall her voice: “Rolly, this is Cory. Ninoy was just released from Fort Bonifacio and is now confined at the Philippine Heart Center. The doctors here said he had a heart attack and recommend a bypass operation. We might need your help. Here he is.”
Thus began my long and enduring relationship with the Aquino family. Ninoy Aquino was a famous person I had never had the chance to meet. But that early morning, he talked to me like I were a long-lost friend.
The doctors in Manila agreed that Ninoy had suffered a heart attack and that he probably would need a coronary bypass. They recommended that he undergo this procedure in the United States.
“I believe they want me to go abroad as they are afraid to touch me here,” Ninoy told me.
Without hesitation, I said: “Come on over. I will be happy to help you.”
Obviously, Ninoy’s death at the Philippine Heart Center, for any reason, would have been a PR disaster with local and international repercussions for Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. They had no choice but to let him go abroad.
Alternatively, Marcos, already under pressure for human rights violations from US President Jimmy Carter’s administration, found a face-saving way to release his nemesis.
On May 11, 1980, Ninoy was admitted under my care at Baylor. On May 13, triple coronary bypass surgery was successfully performed by the late Dr. Ben F. Mitchel, then Baylor’s chief of cardiothoracic surgery.
But how did Ninoy end up in Dallas? And how did he choose me to take care of him? (Ninoy intimated to me later in our friendship that he was a believer in the metaphysical and that we must have been destined to meet because he did not know me from Adam and yet trusted me with his life.)
My connection to the family began in 1972, soon after martial law was declared in the Philippines, when Nicanor “Noring” Reyes Jr., president of Far Eastern University and Ninoy’s brother-in-law, became my patient at Baylor.
Noring also had coronary bypass surgery and I checked him annually for almost a decade. He passed away after his second heart operation. His wife, Josephine Cojuangco Reyes, was Cory’s older sister. [She passed away late last month. –Ed.]
I met Cory for the first time in 1976, when my wife Margie and our two children were on vacation in Manila. Ninoy was then imprisoned at Fort Bonifacio.
Ninoy flew from Manila with Cory and daughter Ballsy on May 11, 1980. I collected the family at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
His regal bearing was instantly noticeable. He was loquacious and friendly, and had a charismatic smile and a firm handshake.
But his face was somewhat pale and I noticed that he would pause as he walked as though short of breath—common symptoms of significant coronary artery disease.
Normally, the trip from the airport to the hospital takes only about 30 minutes. But it took much longer because Ninoy wanted to see where John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He was quiet and observant as I circled the site in downtown Dallas on our way to Baylor.
Ninoy’s admission to the hospital was a harrowing experience for me. I did not anticipate the magnitude of his stature.
Almost immediately, I was deluged with local and international phone calls regarding his condition. The calls from Malacañang and Filipino generals, as well as the press, became so distracting that I had all of them channeled to the hospital’s PR department.
Security was also a concern. I contacted the Dallas FBI office but they pointed out that Ninoy was not a state guest and therefore they could not provide assistance. Much to my chagrin, we ended up posting only a hospital security guard by his door.
But this setup did not deter his numerous friends and press people who came from all directions.
Ninoy’s triple coronary bypass went smoothly and recuperation was rapid except for a touch of easily treatable pericarditis, a common experience after coronary surgery.
What concerned me more was the fact that he was not getting the prescribed rest. He was constantly entertaining his political friends who entered through the side door despite our “No Visitors” sign posted by the main entrance!
A week after surgery, I took Ninoy home. He stayed with us for a couple of weeks prior to leaving for San Francisco, where he rested for a month.
Our modest home was on busy Northaven Road in Dallas. There was no special security. I found out years later that our house was constantly monitored by Marcos’ agents!
The Marcos regime allowed Ninoy to come to the United States for surgery on two conditions: he was to return to the Philippines after recuperation, and he was not to make political statements while abroad.
These preconditions bothered Ninoy a lot. I frequently saw him pacing around our home in deep thought.
Initially, he was very intent on keeping his promise to return to the Philippines. But as he got better and stronger, and with constant discussions with political advisers like Lorenzo Tañada, Jose Diokno, Raul Manglapus, and many others, he gradually reversed his initial thought.
He hardened his position upon returning from San Francisco. In an interview with reporter Julia Wallace for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald, he voiced the classic statement: “A pact with the devil is no pact at all.”
The die was cast!
But legally prolonging Ninoy’s stay in the United States and at the same time saving face posed a dilemma. We found a legitimate and ethical excuse: I prescribed a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation period, which was forwarded to and approved by Malacañang.
The respite also gave him breathing room to formalize an arrangement for a fellowship at Harvard University.
When Ninoy returned to Dallas from San Francisco, the first thing I noticed was his dramatic change in spirit. He was no longer brooding and appeared changed and charged.
The weary dove had morphed into a fighting eagle!
After staying with us for a few days, Ninoy and his family rented an apartment in North Dallas where they stayed for the duration of his rehabilitation. They then proceeded to Boston to start his stint at Harvard.
In his element
Ninoy enjoyed his stay in Boston. He was in his element at Harvard, where he was in the company of intellectual luminaries he had long admired.
I visited him and his family many times and was always welcomed at their home on Commonwealth Avenue. (My social visits included medical checkups.)
We enjoyed going out to eat, feasting on mostly Asian delights. Occasionally, we went to the Fishermen’s Wharf where we purchased lobsters that Cory cooked for us.
I observed Ninoy deliver awe-inspiring speeches at Harvard. He was very articulate and was always in demand.
Once, he took me with him to a Harvard political professor’s home where we watched the returns of the 1980 Carter/Reagan presidential election. Ninoy sat in front of the TV set and made predictions.
Our host nudged me and whispered, “This guy scares me. He knows more about American politics than I do.”
‘The beautiful one’
I also traveled with Ninoy in the United States and abroad. One interesting sortie was his December 1980 meeting with Imelda Marcos at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Ambassador Ernesto Maceda was included in the entourage.
Ninoy invited me to go with him so I could meet the then First Lady, whom he facetiously called “the beautiful one.” She was elegantly dressed in her signature butterfly-sleeved gown and quite heavily perfumed.
Her suite occupied the entire floor and was lavishly decorated with fresh flowers. I was not privy to their one-on-one conversation on a sofa in the corner of the receiving suite. But we had a photo op before departing.
To be part of such moments in history was an unbelievable experience for someone like me who grew up relatively poor and unknown in the province of Romblon.
Our trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July 1981 was a memorable one. Ninoy was invited to a meeting with King Khaled and took me along. Also in the entourage were Ambassador Maceda and Japanese journalist Kiyoshi Wakamiya.
Because of a fire in the Bahrain area, our scheduled audience was postponed for nine days. Ninoy and I shared a room while Maceda and Wakamiya occupied another at the Sheraton hotel.
We passed our time meeting with Filipino Muslim exiles, particularly Representative Rashid Lucman and Macapanton Abbas Jr. and their aides.
The meetings were held in our room for confidential purposes or in the coffee shop during breakfast, where Ninoy savored his daily two eggs over easy, with ketchup.
In the nine days we roomed together, I learned more about Philippine history and politics than at any time in my life.
Ninoy also told me the story of his life, his dreams and inner fears, as though I were a father confessor.
“Why are you telling me all this?” I once asked.
“Well, if I could trust you with my life, I can trust you with anything,” he said.
I will carry his secrets to my grave.
It was in Jeddah that Ninoy obtained his passport with the name “Marcial Bonifacio.” This was the same passport he used on his fateful trip back the Philippines.
He explained that “Marcial” stood for martial law and “Bonifacio” for Fort Bonifacio, where he was held for seven years and seven months.
He kept the passport in a secret compartment in his attaché case on our way home.
Finally, our trip to Taif, Saudi Arabia’s Baguio, where King Khaled stayed during summer, materialized. The convoy, led by our Arabian host and friend of the king and Congressman Lucman, proceeded up the mountain after going around Mecca.
We arrived at the palace close to midnight. It was large and opulently trimmed, with many turbaned men hanging around and no women in sight.
The king’s reception atrium was a sight to behold. Layers of security men surrounded him dressed in white flowing robes with their hands on the handles of their scimitars. Awed, I thought the view was like a scene from an “Arabian Nights” movie.
But His Excellency looked fraught and tired. The meeting lasted for 15 minutes, after which we returned to Jeddah.
In the fall of 1981, Ninoy and I and our wives flew to Hong Kong, where Ninoy met with members of his family including his mother, Aurora Aquino.
It was obvious that Marcos’ agents were tailing us wherever we went. But this did not seem to faze Ninoy.
One night, while the two of us were window-shopping, Ninoy told me something eerie. “Rolly,” he said, “did you know that we could get killed here tonight and our killers could be in Manila before our bodies are discovered?”
Our trip to Tokyo, where we attended a Japanese wedding, was more pleasant.
In the pink
I continued to monitor Ninoy’s health. He maintained his weight but occasionally strayed from his prescribed diet. He enjoyed Asian cuisine and was happiest when eating sushi. For him, American food was bland and Mexican food tasted like chalk.
He came to Dallas intermittently for scheduled medical checkups which included blood tests, treadmill exercises and nuclear stress tests. All examinations proved he was in good health.
His only complaint about his heart operation was the itchy keloid on the scar of his chest incision. A temporary setback was the December 1980 surgical repair of his left Achilles tendon, which he ruptured when he slipped while jumping on a curb. This healed properly and did not impair his activities.
Otherwise, he was in the pink of health. There was no iota of truth to the claims of his adversaries, pundits and other commentators that he was physically and mentally incapacitated, to which they attributed his decision to return to the Philippines in August 1983.
Ninoy and I met as planned in New York in July 1983. He was with Cory and youngest daughter Kris, and I was with my wife Margie and our daughter Gigi, who is Kris’ age.
We had dinner at a Korean restaurant in Manhattan.
Ninoy looked sad. At that time he had already made up his mind to return home in August.
When I asked if I could join him on that trip, he said: “Wait till December. You go home with Cory. By that time things would have settled down.”
That was the last time I saw him alive.
The night before he embarked on his circuitous journey home, he called me from Los Angeles and thanked me profusely for what my family and I did for him and his family in the three years that he was in exile.
As his parting request, he somberly said: “Should anything drastic happen to me, please help my family.”
I replied positively, then bid him goodbye and wished him good luck.
On Aug. 21, 1983, upon landing in Manila, he was assassinated.