Ann and our daughter Tintin, 13.
By ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ
(I wrote this little story five years ago)
I AM NOT religious, but in my aloneness – whether I’m driving or in the shower, cooking or just lying in bed, or sitting in the toilet – I prayed. I prayed for a lot of things, especially for Divine guidance, so that all my worries are purged from my psyche. And at the same time, I tried to figure out why things in my life happened as they did, wrestling to find the logic in the confusion things of what had just transpired.
For almost four months now, I have been hanging precariously from a sticky web of misfortunes that struck us – my girlfriend (now my wife) and me. It was only the other morning when I woke up from a long night of restless slumber that I came to put together the pieces of a puzzle that God has thrown our way. It was only until that moment when I came to clearly understand why He allowed events that seemed to have no bearing at all to one another to happen as they did. And falling into place, they unfolded an intriguing picture of a mystery in a jigsaw puzzle.
For a mortal like me, it was just too difficult to understand why Ann had to go to Melbourne, Australia, as overseas worker, to do the thankless job of a welder, only to go home in haste to the Philippines after working for only six weeks, penniless, and to find herself at a general hospital in Laoag City, aflame with fever and with infection from a fractured bone sustained from a freak accident at their Australian workplace already consuming all of her body.
Doctors said she needed only a few hours more before her bone-tired body could finally give up for good. All this I can’t fathom and had asked God: Why? What had she done to deserve all this? And what had I done to suffer her anguish and bad luck?
TOWARDS the middle of last December (of 2008), Ann popped on my screen while I was busying myself with the day-to-day routine work at the newspaper where I am employed. We had no communication for quite a long while and it was her style to surprise me not with happy news but something else burdensome. She’s trouble and she’s been like that ever since I knew her some nine years ago. And since she learned how to operate the Yahoo Messenger text messaging, she would send messages that often irked me. Just like the one she sent just a few days before Christmas Day.
She said she was leaving very soon for Melbourne, Australia, along with seven others – five women and two men -- to work as welders at an Australian company. All the working documents had been approved by POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Authority) along with approved work visas and airfares for all of them. She said for six months, they had trained for the welding job at the TESDA, a government agency providing skills training to those wanting to learn a new line of job, purposely for overseas employment.
However, there was this big “BUT”: She had not paid yet the recruiter’s fee of 25,000 pesos while the rest of her buddies had theirs. If I could help her with the amount; she just did not want to miss this opportunity to work with decent salary and thus, help me raise our eight-year-old daughter Tintin and support her old mother as well who’s left behind in Candaba, Pampanga.
To me, I long wanted her to be self-sufficient, priding herself with the great opportunity of helping her loved ones just like anyone else. But most of all, I wanted her to see fulfillment in a job that she would find enjoyable, with the feeling of ultimate pride and dignity. And yet, this dream has been elusive from her since I had known her nine years ago.
Ann told me their batch – the second -- was to leave on December 16 on a Nortwest Orient flight for Melbourne. The first batch of eight welders – six women and two men – left last November 16 to work in the same company as theirs.
Fully convinced that the job was legitimate after grilling her online with lots of prying questions, I sent her the money she needed via Western Union, plus some extra to buy a few Aussie dollars for her wallet and some personal items.
Arriving in Melbourne city the following day, December 17, they were immediately brought to the company’s work compound in the outback some 50 kilometers from the city.
However, they were dismayed to learn that the first batch who arrived there was nowhere to be seen. An elderly Filipino woman who worked at the workers’ barracks mess hall told them that the first eight were brought to the Phillip Island several kilometers away from their present work place where much of the company’s job activities were being carried out.
On January 15, the end of their fourth week, Ann asked the supervisor for their salaries. However, they were told that they won’t be paid until they had paid back all company expenses in importing them from Manila. The news shocked them no end. With no money to send to their families back home, they felt cheated and depressed knowing that their work contract approved by the POEA said otherwise.
Towards the end of their fifth week at the workplace, on January 22, Carol, a close friend of Ann, had taken ill from too much work fatigue and had to be excused from work and was told to remain at the workplace’s clinic. Ann and another friend of hers – Angel – were asked to look after Carol while she was undergoing medication.
The elderly Filipino woman had tried her best to help them with their needs. It was through her that Ann learned of the fate of the first batch of the Filipinos who were taken to the island – that they were being made to work long hours like slaves and prisoners, with little rest and surviving only on substandard meals as the company was cutting back on food budget.
The old woman said since they left shortly after arriving last November 17 after which they were taken to the island, not one of them had returned to the main work camp on the mainland. However, she was told by other Australian workers who returned from Phillip Island how the Filipinos were being treated by their bosses.
It was on this day when their Australian supervisor told Ann that the eight of them would now be hauled off to Phillip Island to join the rest of the Filipinos. But with Carol being ill, the three buddies’ going there had been delayed as they had to remain at the compound for Carol’s sake. The five others left for the island.
However, on Friday, January 23, Ann had a nasty freak accident while doing a welding job. A piece of thick steel beam loosely attached to a framed structure just next to her suddenly gave way and slammed on her right arm, almost tearing it from the shoulder socket.
The white supervisor did not bother much about it. Casually, he just ordered that she be taken to the clinic for the usual first aid attention. Ann, a graduate of radiology of which she did not have chance to practice, protested and pleaded with the supervisor to take her to the hospital for an x-ray examination; she knew her injury was more than just simple muscle bruises. She was feeling acute pains and she knew something very wrong happened to her arm bone. But the white bastard just ignored her.
Three days after, on the night of January 26, a Monday, Ann was reeling in pain with raging fever, and her damaged arm had already swollen to twice its size. By then, Carol had recovered from her ailment and was now moving about.
Angel, this time, was already so agitated over what their fate would be in the next 24 hours. They had dreaded the prospect of being taken to the island to join the rest of the Filipinos and suffer their fate.
It was on this night that Ann pleaded with the old Filipino lady to help them get out of the compound and escape and go to the Philippine Consulate in Melbourne before it was too late for them. The good lady immediately agreed, telling them that they should take off. Otherwise they would suffer the fate of those who were brought to Phillip Island to work like slaves. But the three were told not to bring anything along with them but their passports and money, if they had. This was to avoid detection when they finally took off.
The next day, January 27, the old lady secretly spirited them out of the company compound and drove them off to Melbourne where they bought one-way budget airfares on AirAsia. Knowing that the three did not have enough money, the old lady paid for the tickets from her own pocket. On the same day, they were on their way back home and landed at Clark Air Base during the first hours of Wednesday, January 28.
During those six weeks of being unable to hear from Ann, I felt very anxious, wondering why she had not tried to contact me. I had assumed that she had carried her cell phone or that she could have sent me some Yahoo messenger text messages during their weekend work break. Or that she could have gone to an Internet Café near their workplace to go online and send me her usual burdensome messages.
Of which she did, on the afternoon of January 28, several hours after they landed at Clark Air Base. But she was doing it in Laoag City in northern Luzon some 12 hour-bus ride from Manila. Laoag City? What the hell was she doing in Laoag City when she was supposed to be working in Australia?
Immediately, her dialogue box popped on my screen with the message: Sweethear, si Ann ‘to … andito ako sa Laoag … sa friend ko … (Sheartheart, this is Ann, am here in Laoag … in my friend’s place …)
Almost shocked, I fired back my text, which said: “Fake ang trabaho ninyo sa Melbourne ano …? I knew it … (that Melbourne job was fake, right…? I knew it!”). It was one fear that I had always anticipated for she had been gypped twice already in the past by illegal recruiters – once in Taiwan and the other in PNG. And for such non-existent jobs, I paid a big some in recruitment fees.
That moment, at an Internet Café in Laoag City, Ann was with buddy Carol and her older sister Cynthia, who makes a living from growing vegetables at their farm and selling them in bulk at market in Sarrat town.
And Ann told me the ordeal she, Carol and Angel suffered while at their workplace in Melbourne. Now having difficulty keying his text messages because of her swollen right arm and hand, she asked Cynthia to do it for her.
Ann decided to come with Carol to Laoag because she did not want to shock her family in Candaba, Pampanga about what happened to her in Australia. And that she had no face to show at home.
Cynthia keyed in that Ann was in a “very bad shape” and that her right arm had already swelled twice its size and that she needed urgent medical attention. Besides, she was burning with fever. She asked me in Filipino: “Sir, could we have her admitted to the general hospital here … she needed urgent medical attention.” She described to me how bad Ann looked that very moment.
Realizing the gravity her condition, the only thing I could say was: “Okay, wait for my text in an hour … I will send you money so she could get admitted at hospital. Just wait at any Western Union counter.” And so, by 4pm that day, Ann was brought to the Laoag City General Hospital. She went straight to the emergency room where she had anti-infection and morphine shots and was put on oxygen and drips.
Dr Rogelio Salazar, the one who dealt with Ann’s severe infection, told Cynthia and Carol that it (infection) had already set in and that she could have expired had another 12 hours passed without her getting medical attention.
“’Ann could have just passed out until she became rigid from infection’, was how Dr Salazar described her prospects,” Cynthia told me in her cellphone text messages later.
An X-ray of her damaged arm showed a crack in the bone and that the flesh wrapped around it was already rotting, thus causing the rapid spread of poison all over her body.
Thanks to the quick medical attention alongside two drips and oxygen tubes that sustained her while unconscious, Ann’s fever subsided a day after. Dr Arlene Garcia, an orthopedic specialist, handled her broken arm bone. She wrapped Ann’s damage arm with cast loaded with medication to prop the bone and start its healing process.
An old back ailment of her which she had forgotten by now suddenly kicked back, triggered by the freak accident she had at their Australian workplace. It was now causing severe, stabbing pain that Dr Salazar had to be called in again to deal with her pain.
Dr Salazar told Ann and Cynthia that since it would cost a fortune to treat her ailment through surgical procedure, he was recommending a laser treatment to be done in three sessions, which, however you look at it, was also quite a costly exercise.
But since there's no other easy way aside from surgical procedure to heal her back pain and make it go away for good, she agreed to have the laser treatment carried out in three sessions.
Carol, 35, who tried her best to learn a new skill – welding – is a farmer’s wife. She did this to land an overseas job. She had to sell their two carabaos (water buffalo) just to pay for the recruitment fee, believing that the Melbourne job would transform their lives for the better. It never did. But she was grateful to have been able to come home in one piece to her four young kids and husband.
Endlessly, she had thanked Ann for her bravery and presence of mind in leading them to flee the Australian work hell despite her worsening arm injury.
Cynthia told this writer in her text messages: "Maliit na bagay po lamang itong ginagawa naming pag-alaga sa kanya (Mary) kung ikukumpara sa ginawa niyang pagligtas sa aking kapatid . kung nagkataon po, baka wala na ang aking kapatid … apat pa namang maliit ang kanyang mga anak. (this was small thing compared to what she did just to rescue our sister. she got four young kids .).
Ann’s hospital bills that included professional fees of the three doctors who handled her three cases – infection, fractured bone and back severe pan -- room and laboratory facilities, drugs and medicines along with incidental expenses for 10 days of confinement: More than 180,000 pesos. There were other related expenses that included costly prescription drugs in four sets, and of course money for her daily sustenance – food, personal items and cell phone load.
But that was not the end of it. One day, while recuperating from her back ailment after taking the second laser treatment session, Ann had experienced breathing difficulties, with severe pain in her chest just above where her heart is that she had to claw hard that part with her two hands every time the pain struck.
In a series of text messages to me that night, Cynthia, overly worried and confused as to what to do, described what was going on her and asked if it was alright for her to take her back to the hospital in Laoag once it was light. I got the text at 4 in the morning; that moment I had difficulty falling asleep.
I did not think twice, and texted back “yes”. That morning, she was almost unconscious that she had to be brought to Laoag while lying on the jeepney’s bench which Cynthia hired to bring her to the hospital. Normally, they just took the tricycle traveling to Laoag from their farm home near the national highway in Sarrat. This time, it was a different story.
Reaching the hospital, Ann was rushed straight to ICU on a gurney, where the attending doctor and nurses immediately hooked her up to a heart monitor, three drips, oxygen mask and tubes. Shortly after that, an ECG reading was taken on her.
Dr Cesar Peralta, the cardiologist-surgeon who handled her case, told Cynthia after a while that Ann had had a heart failure; she could have expired if her coming to the hospital was delayed for another four hours.
He was not sure of the cause as yet, but based on what he heard from her heart through stethoscope, he detected some “murmur” in her heart every time she breathed. And with this, he had a “suspect”, but wouldn’t reveal to Cynthia what it was.
Ann was on ICU for six days. As soon as she had stabilized, she was transferred to a private room where she spent four days to recuperate. The cost of her ICU confinement that included doctor’s fee: close to 60,000 pesos plus incidentals.
Just before she was discharged the previous Wednesday, Ann was told by the doctor of the result of the ECG lab analysis. It was the worst news she and Cynthia had ever received.
Ann had an “atrial septal defect” (ASD): Translation: a hole in the heart. It was the one causing her difficulty in breathing and chest pains. And that she had to undergo procedure immediately to cover the “hole” which could be from the size of a pin-prick to at least 3mm in diameter.
Relaying the news to her family in Dinalupihan, Bataan, I was told by Ann’s older sister Raquel that Ann must have acquired a congenital heart defect from their late father who died of heart failure. But over the years, she never had any symptoms or trouble, Raquel said.
Dr Peralta said there were very few symptoms but eventually during later adult life, breathlessness and other electrical instability of the heart can develop. Ann is turning 35 next month and obviously experiencing now the inevitable, being a carrier of a pin-hole in her heart.
Failure to have the surgery ASAP could lead to more severe heart failure and other complications, Dr Peralta said.
An online medical encyclopedia described this anomaly: The hole allows blood to cross from the left chamber of the heart to the right, leading to extra flow through the lung artery, causing the heart and the lung to work harder. It could also lead to the enlargement of the heart.
Receiving Cynthia’s text message about Dr Peralta’s finding soon after, I felt as if I was slammed by a train. Over this shocking news, Ann and Cynthia cried their muted grief. Both were thinking of the same thing: the cost of the procedure as the three of us were still reeling under the great stress of having to settle huge bills incurred from Ann’s recent hospitalization.
But then, I relayed a message to Dr Peralta of my desire for Ann to undergo the surgery immediately, if possible, the following Monday. So, barely had she stayed at home to recuperate that Ann was hospital-bound again that following Sunday for the much-needed overnight rest to prepare for the next morning’s surgery.
Then the next shocker came: the procedure called “keyhole” treatment to close the pin-hole in her heart, one which the surgeon decided to take, would cost 130,000 pesos, plus the surgeon’s fee of 20,000 pesos. After surgery, she will stay on ICU at 4,500 pesos a day (to cover the use of facilities and drugs), plus 3,500 pesos a day for the use of ICU room. The fee for the doctor who will handle her case is 2,000 pesos per day. Her stay there could last five days to a week depending on her condition.
In keyhole treatment, a device is folded into a thin tube (catheter) which is inserted into the vein in the groin that is link directly tote heart, under general anesthetic. The device is then unfolded like an umbrella into the hole and released, thus closing the hole effectively. The device stays in the heart and eventually becomes covered by the patient’s own tissue during the healing process.
The other procedure is the open heart surgery in which the chest is opened through the breast bone to reach the pin-hole in the heart.
Cynthia told me we had to pay half of the cost before the procedure could be initiated, and the other half after it was done. My brain was reeling again, although I felt that it had become numb already from the huge cost we have to deal with. So, on that day, a Friday, I sent the money to cover the cost of her surgery and other incidentals, through Western Union.
Last Monday, March 9, Ann finally went under the knife. Dr Peralta and his team took three hours to close the hole in her heart. As of this writing, she’s still on ICU and the latest news from Cynthia was that she would be transferred to a private room by tomorrow (Friday) to recuperate. I don’t know how long she would be there but I knew the cost would be 2,000 pesos a day, excluding the cost of drugs, doctor’s fee and many others. But anyway.
Last Saturday, I was staring at the dwindling balance in my bank account, trying to figure out how to make do with what had been left of my savings. I knew it was not the last of the expenses. There would be more.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I would not have enough funds to cover the latest bills had our company accountant not deposited in advance into my account my supposed one-month vacation pay along with my salary for February. The accountant, a Filipino, was leaving for Manila for a month-long work leave on the first Saturday of February and had to deposit in advance the company expatriates’ salaries for that month.
Actually, I had instructed him to have it along with the salary due at the end of this month (March) because I was also going home for my yearly one-month break first week of April and I needed some pocket money for my holiday. But he did it a month earlier – in February -- for no apparent reason. But now, I realized that it made sense. Because of this, I had had enough cash to pay for Ann’s heart procedure. Otherwise, I would have trouble looking for money to make up for the balance.
THE OTHER MORNING while still in bed, I was trying to comprehend all the unfortunate events that had embroiled us – Ann, Cynthia, her family and me – over the past several weeks. And to my great amazement, one by one, the pieces in the awesome puzzle that God had tinkered with fell into place.
Before she took the TESDA welding course, Ann had worked at a small company owned by a Filipino senator as office assistant and sometimes Girl-Friday, receiving only a minimum wage. All the while, she was unaware of her heart condition; she did not know that she had a pin-hole which she had inherited from her late father because she never had any symptoms until a few days ago.
Cardiologists said that “carriers” of this congenital heart defect would only feel the anomaly later in their lives, starting from age 30. Ann turned 35 first week of April, and therefore, it was inevitable for her not to start feeling the symptoms, usually severe chest pains and shortness in breathing for most of the time and severe migraine with spots or auras in her vision. In other words, there was no escape for her, so to speak.
Now, if she had the attack while at work in Manila (assuming that she did not go to Melbourne) and had needed an urgent heart operation, it would be a lot of problems for her and for me. First, the cost of the procedure alone would be staggering, from 300,000 pesos to more than half a million pesos, if done, say, either at the Heart Center of the Philippines, Medical City, St Luke’s or UST Medical Center. Not to mention the doctor’s fee and other incidentals. Very clearly, the little funds I keep in a bank here in Port Moresby would not be able to cover all this.
Secondly, no-one would be around to look after her. Her family is in the province. Her mother, who is quite old now and is sickly, is in Candaba, Pampanga. Her only sister Raquel who lives in Dinalupihan, Bataan, would have had a hard time looking after her as she has to attend to her own family’s daily needs. She’s also the one looking after our daughter Tintin, a grade-schooler. And my family – my mom and siblings -- knew of her only by name and had never seen her. So, Ann’s prospects of surviving her heart’s crisis – psychologically, physically and emotionally -- were very bleak.
So, God the Almighty took over to orchestrate things for us, although in a very complicated way: In short, He sent Ann to Melbourne to meet Carol. Her accident from which she sustained a bone fracture was actually a blessing in disguise; it prevented them from being hauled off to Philip Island to suffer the atrocious working conditions there which were now being suffered by the rest of the Filipinos. She, Carol and Angel fled their workplace, and then Australia, for the Philippines with help from the good elderly Filipino woman.
Reaching the Philippines, Carol took her to her sister Cynthia at a garlic farm in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, who then selflessly assumed the role of a “care giver” for Anne while she was at the Laoag City General Hospital (LCGH) and while recuperating at home. Fortunately, Cynthia’s two sons were all grown-ups and were working their vegetable farm, giving her all the time to look after Ann day and night. Meanwhile, the accountant, in early February, deposited in advance into my account my supposed one-month vacation pay for my coming annual work leave this April. We both did not know that it would come in handy later in paying for the bills.
The cost of medical services at the Laoag City General Hospital was considerably low compared to Manila’s medical centers. And doctors at LCGH charged for their expert services reasonably. In fact, Dr Peralta, a cardiac specialist and surgeon; Dr Arlene Garcia, orthopedic specialist; and Dr Rogelio Salazar, could have worked in Manila or overseas, and made more money from their expertise. But they opted to stay in their home city of Laoag to help fellow Ilocanos, including Ann, who ironically, spoke the place's dialect
THAT EARLY MORNING it dawned on me that God had never forsaken me in my travails amidst my faltering finances. I had prayed hard that He gave me the means to pay for Ann’s ballooning hospital bills. And he listened, by orchestrating everything from the very first event in Ann’s tragic life, so that all would wind up in Laoag City, at the LCGH where I was in a better position to pay the cost; He knew I had very little funds left to pay for Ann’s last but huge coming medical bills.
From the time she was first admitted to hospital on January 28, up to the time she entered the operating theater for the procedure last Monday, March 9, the cost has already ballooned to more than 400,000 pesos (US$8,600).
As of this writing, Ann was still on ICU with the prospects of being transferred to a recuperating room tomorrow night (Friday) and Dr Peralta is making sure that she was okay.
In parting, I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Cesar Peralta, cardiac specialist and surgeon; Dr Arlene Garcia, orthopedic specialist; and Dr Rogelio Salazar – all of Laoag City General Hospital for helping Ann wade through her crisis and emerge victorious. You guys were doing great services to your “kailyan” (province-mates).
Most of all, I thank God the Father Almighty and Lord Jesus for carrying Ann through a complex of life-threatening crisis. I thank them for giving my beloved a new life.
(About three weeks after Ann left the hospital (in 2009) with the doctors confident that she had been cured, she reeled again under another heart failure and had to be shuttled back to the Laoag City General Hospital. The doctor who handled her heart case said the pin hole in her heart was not totally plugged and therefore she had to undergo another procedure to finally seal it. But the repair wasn't free and cost me another fortune. And while she was recuperating at her friend’s farm house where she stayed, she had had trouble breathing and needed to be brought to the hospital again ASAP.
And this time, her X-ray showed some water in her lungs. The doctors explained that while she was having problem with the heart’s pin hole, water was seeping out from the heart and was being deposited into the lower section of her left lung. So a procedure was carried out to drain the water to ease her breathing and relieve the pain.
Three weeks ago (February 2014), Ann’s back pain surged again with her left shoulder developing into a painful reddish swell and her doctor in Baguio City (she and my daughter are now based here) said it was being caused by a defective tissue that had swollen. It turned out that it was a remnant of her previous ailment from that nasty accident she had in Melbourne that injured her left shoulder and arm. The lady doctor suggested a surgery to remove the culprit, but Ann said no. So the doctor opted to deal with it through three sessions of laser treatment. The cost per session was 15,000 pesos plus the cost of seven drugs that included one for maintenance till she was finally healed, for a total of 70,000. After she used up the last of the maintenance drug a few days ago, the pain went away and hopefully it was for good. -- APH)