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There have been few reasons to celebrate the past two years. The pandemic has forced every one of us into the “theater of war”, so to speak, and each of us have played our own part to make sure the human race emerges victorious. Some, however, have played more crucial roles. Thus, for the 36th anniversary issue of the Inquirer, wouldn’t it be apt to devote a big portion of our print space to the true heroes, our medical frontliners?

Much has been said about our health professionals’ selfless dedication to preserve and restore our health. Sadly, some of them have even paid the ultimate price. We honor all of them who have risked their lives, and continue to do so in order to keep us safe.

But let’s give this humble piece of motoring space to those who have made it this far, and have made it a point to reward their efforts with some R&R by way of that much-needed vacation away from the battle zones. The following doctors and health professionals either have already gone on to take that long road trip with their families, or have made plans to do so the soonest possible.

Before everything, though, my profuse gratitude goes to Dr. Raffy Ricafranca Castillo, without whose assistance this list would have been impossible to complete. Doc Raffy, as I have fondly called for the over two decades we have been acquainted, is a venerable cardiologist and a veteran Inquirer columnist, whose Medical Files began in 2000 in our (now defunct) Science and Health section, and has continued on in the paper’s Lifestyle Wellness section.

I asked Doc Raffy if he’d already taken his well-deserved epic road trip after his own long-drawn-out bout with COVID. It seems that the good doctor is still too busy with his patients, and his column, to go out and take a vacation. What I do remember was our trip to Baler, Aurora, nearly two decades ago. He and his wife were in his trusty Mitsubishi Pajero, and I and my group were in an Isuzu Trooper loaned out by our friends over at Isuzu Philippines. Then, from his place in Baler, Doc Raffy was able to secure a Land Rover for my group’s offroad adventure to Casiguran. Too bad there wasn’t Facebook then to document our trip.

I’d imagine Doc Raffy to go on a return trip to picturesque Baler as soon as his schedule permits.

Shout out, too, to the persistent and hardworking Gynna Gagelonia of the Philippine Heart Association for referring her own doctor-contacts.

My questions to the health professionals were: If given the chance, what would be your epic road trip after the pandemic, and what car would you be using for that journey?

Let’s get down to it, shall we?

Dr. Antonio H. Villalon, Medical Oncologist

Manila Doctors Hospital, St. Luke’s Global City

Past Chairman, UP-PGH Cancer Institute; Past Director, St Luke’s Global City; Past President, Philippine College of Physicians Philippine Society of Medical Oncology and Philippine Society Of Oncology

“Father of Medical Oncology in the Philippines”

“(My long road trip would be) a return trip to my previous routine—daily clinic hours, seeing patients face-to-face, and definitely a trip back to my hometown in Legazpi City. I have not visited (it) since the pandemic.

A Ferrari or Lamborghini might be too fast, a pace not suitable after a pandemic. A Rolls-Royce or a Mercedes-Benz, likewise, are not appropriate during the post-pandemic recovery period, so my current Fortuner will do.”

(Villalon said he would continue his face-to-face consultation and teleconsults, but on less clinic days to avoid frequent contacts to protect his immune system. He says his priority would be to observe all health protocols at all times for him, his family and his patients.)

Dr. Gilbert C. Vilela, Clinical Adult Cardiologist

President, Philippine Heart Association-Philippine College of Cardiology

Deputy Executive Director for Education, Training and Research Services, Philippine Heart Center

“Very long drives to either Pagudpud or Sorsogon. I have done this (two weeks apart, though) with my family several summers ago and we immensely enjoyed these trips. We had a lot of stops because we bought local delicacies and snacks we passed by along the road. Then we ate at local eateries or karinderya, savoring local delicacies. We realized it was the journey that really mattered rather than the destination. But, of course, the destination was as delightful. We were tired but absolutely satisfied.

My dream car for these long trips is the sturdy Land Rover Defender. There is something in this vehicle that makes me feel secure and confident. Although my daughters feel that the leg room of the Defender is not that comfortable (as compared with the Toyota Super Grandia we had before), I place freedom from fear and anxiety over comfort. It can climb, it can dive. It’s an off road vehicle with a great ground clearance. It can cross rivers, so I can drive through floods, just in case. It also has a very good mileage per liter—making it perfect for very long drives. It has a lot of amenities, too. The real question is: What does it not have?”

(Vilela explains that he is the Deputy Executive Director for Education, Training and Research Services of PHC, and a member of PHC’s Covid response. He says that their immediate response to the pandemic would be to organize an Incident Command that would make quick decisions and actions for the personnel and patients of the center.)

Dr. Deborah Ignacia David Ona

Internal Medicine- Hypertension

Assistant Chief Medical Officer for Quezon City St. Luke’s Medical Center

President, Philippine Society of Hypertension

“I haven’t actually explored the sights in the North. A road trip to the Ilocos region would be a welcome treat. Old structures like churches and old houses accentuate the local charm of the area. I heard the roads there are well-paved and easy to navigate.

I drive a Volkswagen Golf GTS. I believe it would be fun to drive this car in an epic road trip as it is very responsive in the accelerator as well as on the brakes. I am impressed at the torque it delivers despite being (powered by) a diesel engine. With the car having a low profile, you could feel it hug the road, there is less ‘tagtag’ as one would frequently experience from a van or a big SUV.

The moonroof is a plus as it contributes positive vibes inside the cabin in the early morning and the afternoon. Since it’s a station wagon, there will always be space for my stuff. What I especially appreciate in this car is the superb Fender Sound system that delivers that crisp sound coupled with a rich bass from its subwoofer. Spotify on its Apple Car Play is well appreciated.”

(Ona recounts that when the pandemic was starting early in 2020, her hospital quickly took the lead and instituted measures to service the expected influx of patients. Such innovations, she says, eventually became the benchmark of other hospitals in the country. She adds that, aside from her role in the leadership team responsible for implementing these measures, she was also a physician managing her own patients afflicted with Covid-19, so she had to balance being in the frontlines as well as being readily available for the frontliners. She stresses that when the vaccine for Covid-19 was rolled out early this year, St. Luke’s was one of the first private hospitals to administer the vaccine, and as an officer of the Philippine Society of Hypertension, she says her group helped the Department of Health convince the public that having hypertension is not a deterrent for vaccination.)

Dr. Benigno “Iggy” Agbayani, Orthopedic Surgeon

Past President and Active Member, Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines Past Chairman, Manila Doctors Hospital’s Orthopedic Department

“(I would drive back to) my hometown of Lingayen, Pangasinan. There is a nice long beach there with grey and evenly fine sand. I need to catch up with relatives and eat the great Lingayen Bangus, Hito, bagoong, tamales, etc.

Any car would do, but it would be great if cell phones would not be allowed so we can have a fun conversation and car radio music.”

(Agbayani says his role with the Concerned Doctors and Citizens of the Philippines involves sharing information on real Covid-19 facts based on independently generated scientific information and onthe-ground assessment. He also medically manages home-based Covid-19 cases. He attends clinic almost daily at Manila Doctors Hospital as an Orthopedic Surgeon and Root cause Medicine Physician.)

Dr. Alejandro Bimbo Diaz, Neurologist-Psychiatrist

Active Consultant, UST Hospital, St Luke’s Medical Center, and San Juan de Dios Hospital

Board of Trustees, Philippine Society of Hypertension Vice President, Philippine Society of Clinical Neurophysiology Fellow, Philippine Neurological Association Associate Professor, UST Faculty of Medicine and Surgery

“I would certainly pick Baler in Aurora, Quezon. I have visited Baler a few times a few years back during our PNA neuro-medical outreach programs. I just love the natural beauty of the place, the beaches, the food, Dicasalarin Cove, Ditumabo Falls, the biggest Balete tree in Asia, etc.

I would use my current fave car, the 2020 Ford Everest, to fit in my family and drive safely and comfortably. The handling of this SUV is very enjoyable with its technological features such as navigation panels, Bluetooth-ready for my favorite Spotify podcasts and music, voice commands for Siri. The ride of this vehicle is amazingly very comfortable and light despite its size.”

(Diaz says that since the outbreak began, he has continued being active as a neurology and psychiatry consultant in Covid and non-Covid cases in the three hospitals. With his colleagues, Diaz conducted interactive zoom meetings in sharing best health protocols practices and guidance in how to be safe and effective in treating Covid-19 cases. He has been conducting a mix of physical and virtual hospital rounds to reduce his exposure, and has also helped distribute PPEs and food for medical/ neurology residents who are in the front lines.)

Dr. Anthony C. Leachon

Internal medicine Cardiology Manila Doctors Hospital

Past President, Philippine College of Physicians Former special adviser, National TaskForce for Covid-19

“We just got back from Pico De Loro in Nasugbu , Batangas with the entire family, including my 6-month-old granddaughter, Simmy. We want a cozy, refreshing and safe place. We all love nature. We like beaches because they let us enjoy ourselves according to how we like to spend our time, whether it means relaxing on a reclining chair, lying in the sand or getting drenched in sweat and water. The psychology of why we like beaches is definitely tied to the irresistible, all-around positive vibe that surrounds it.

We used two Hyundai Starex vans and a 4x 4 Toyota Prado. The Hyundai Grand Starex is a very spacious family car, and has enough space for the entire family and for the baby’s needs. It’s very comfortable, you don’t have to bend over to stretch your body during a long journey.”

(Leachon says he is now the chair of KilKoVid, a coalition of concerned citizens and organizations which aims to complement and supplement the Covid-19 plans and strategies of the Quezon City local government.)

Dr. Michael Tee

Professor, UP College of Medicine

University Scientist and Vice Chancellor, UP Manila

OCTA Research Fellow Lead Researcher, Philippine Red Cross’ Saliva Direct to RT PCR test for COVID19

Vice Chair, Bayanihan Na Operation Center Donation Arm

“When this (pandemic) is over, a family trip to visit friends and places in Tigaon and Sangay, Camarines Sur on a Honda Odyssey is definitely on my to-do list. The sights along the way, the new highway, and the beautiful beaches and the (leadership) of these municipalities make me want to go. (What’s) important is the family aspect of the trip.”

(Tee reveals that one of his efforts during the pandemic included retrofitting of university facilities to prepare for face-to-face classes.)

Dr. Alberto A. Atilano, Internist-cardiologist

Active consultant, UST Hospital Medical Director, Perpetual Succor Hospital and Maternity in Manila

Past president,Philippine Lipid and Atherosclerosis Society and the Philippine Society of Hypertension Board Member, Foundation for Lay Education on Heart Diseases (FHLED).

“I have always loved to go on road trips with my wife, and we have travelled to many parts of Luzon except Benguet. This pandemic has delayed our plan to visit Sta. Cruz, Zambales with a return trip via Pangasinan. In all our previous road trips, we have always enjoyed our ride in our model 2005 Ford Explorer SUV. It is reliable, safe, and above all, very comfortable. The downside with this vehicle is its 6km/liter of gasoline consumption, but we have taken that into consideration.”

(Atilano shares that in the first six months of the pandemic, he was still doing hospital rounds and conducting face-to-face clinic consultations, but that after seeing many of his colleagues succumb to Covid-19, he decided to work from home. He says he continues to manage his non-Covid patients who get admitted to the hospital via online communication with the resident staff and hospital consultant. He also conducts tele-consultations twice a week.)

Dr. Danilo M. Manango, General Surgeon/ Family Physician

President/Administrator, Manango Hospital, Alicia, Isabela Affiliations: Philippine Society of General Surgeons; Private Hospital Association of the Philippines.

“Since we are from Northern Luzon (Isabela), we are excited to go on a road trip to the south—Bicol, Sorsogon, up to Leyte Island. These interesting places are what we are longing to see as a family. I will choose our Nissan Premium van because it is more spacious and comfortable for a long trip with my growing family —my wife, children and young grandchildren. We can even sleep by the roadside and eat in the van.”

(As a hospital owner, Manango says he faced his first challenge as administrator—to encourage his employees to serve in the midst of the threat of possible infection in the early part of the pandemic. He recalls that being in full PPE suits in a non-airconditioned facility made them uncomfortable during tours of duty, especially when they had to answer the call of nature.)

Dr. Raymund Paul Baello, Cardiologist

Victor R. Ponciano Medical Center, Mandaluyong City

Member, Philippine Heart Association and Philippine College of Physicians

“My destination of choice is Baguio, to enjoy places there I’ve never been to before and revisit some—Valley of Colors, Our Lady of Atonement Cathedral, Strawberry Farm in La Trinidad, and queueing in Good Shepherd Convent for ube jam. My choice of vehicle would be the Ford Ranger FX4. An epic road trip would be made more memorable using the vehicle I earned after a company promotion.”

(Baello relates that early on in the pandemic, residents of the hospital he was affiliated to were exposed to Covid, so they needed to self-isolate. Practicing the code of ethics in serving beyond the call of duty, Baello and his fellow consultants volunteered to go on 24-hour duty in order to augment the hospital workforce. He remembers vividly that there were still no PPEs then, so they had to use trash bags and face shields made from elastic garter and acetate plastic.)

Merilyn Pineda – Tan, MD, FPPS

Chief of Medical Professional Staff Quirino Province Medical Center

Fellow, Philippine Pediatric Society Member, Philippine Medical Association-Quezon City Chapter

Certified Family Physician, Philippine Academy of Family Physicians

“I want a road trip from Cabarroguis, Quirino to Manila to Samar to Siargao, on my proven and tested Mitsubishi Montero Sport.”

(Pineda-Tan says that since the March 2020 lockdown, Quirino Province had the lowest Covid-19 positive cases, but starting March 2021, there was a surge. Quirino Province Medical Center was not intended as a Covid hospital, but seeing that the CVMC Region II Trauma and Medical Center and the Southern Isabela Medical Center were already being overwhelmed with Covid cases, Pineda-Tan says they had to provide rooms to accommodate Covid-19-positive patients. Pineda-Tan is thankful that the hospital overcame such challenges.)

Dr. Joel Alejandro

Diabetes specialist

Medical Officer III Makati LGU

Head Physician, Makati vaccination site

“The past two years has been the busiest two years in my professional life. Traveling and vacation is, indeed, a big reward for me. I would like to travel to Siargao and enjoy the scenery while driving. I’ll take my Honda City, as it is fuel-efficient yet powerful. This trip will allow me to try out the capabilities of my City as I pass highways, mountains and take it on roll-on-roll-off (RoRo) ships. It would be my first time to see the place. My dream car, though, is a Tesla.”

Dr. Ailen Albaña Tamargo, Internist-Cardiologist

Manila Doctors Hospital

The Medical City

St Vincent Hospital Marikina

Padre Pio Hospital, San Mateo, Rizal

“My first epic road trip after this pandemic blows over would have to be Bicol. We have never visited it and we have friends that moved to Bicol and haven’t seen them in a while. We heard lots of good things about Camarines Sur resorts and we’ve never seen Mayon Volcano. We’ll use our Toyota Fortuner for the long drive. It’s a reliable SUV and is casa-maintained, so there’s extra peace of mind while traveling. The interior space suits our small family, with lots of space for bags and luggage, too. The 360 camera and head unit integrated with Waze and Spotify via Google drive/Apple car play are also must-haves for long trips.”

(Tamargo says she has made it her mission to serve the community by volunteering pro bono in the vaccination drive of her local government in coordination with the private subdivision officers.)

Dr. Lani Mercado Asis

Endocrinology and Metabolism specialist

James L. Gordon Memorial Medical Center Baypointe Medical Center

“My epic road trip would be in Zambales, where my family has maintained a business since March 2020. My family already frequents Zambales once or twice a month, and if I tag along with my husband, we would use the family’s Toyota Hilux pick-up. But if we’re chauffeur-driven, we’d use our Mitsubishi Montero.”

(Mercado-Asis, who also runs her own clinics in Manila and Olongapo City, conducts teleconsults. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, she shares that she, her husband and her daughter distributed homemade masks to several hospitals.)

There you go. So, if you see a health professional in your own dream destinations, chances are they’re on vacay mode, too. Do thank them for their services, and wish them a happy trip, and the best of health.

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