From puzzles to purpose | Inquirer Opinion

“Di ba wala kang childhood?”

This line has been a favorite piece of banter with one of my friends whenever we talked about events that happened during our younger years. While most people my age remember watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Blue’s Clues” on TV for hours on end, I was not able to watch any of these iconic childhood shows during my formative years — a consequence of not having the television channel that aired them back then.

Because of this, I was left with no other choice but to do things that may not be appealing to the current generation of digital natives — reading, for instance. I was able to finish a full set of encyclopedias when I was a kid. Aside from bombarding myself with knowledge about the history of ancient civilizations and the great wonders of outer space, another hobby that filled my time was solving puzzles. Whether it was tackling a simple jigsaw puzzle or figuring out a way to catch a rat using an improvised trap made from coconut shells, my seven-year-old self did these activities with beaming enthusiasm.

Fast forward to now: I have come to realize that medical school is like reliving my childhood all over again — reading tons of books and solving challenging puzzles on a daily basis. However, they do not come anymore in the form they had previously taken. Colorful storybooks have become boring, thick, and hardbound medical books. Jigsaw puzzles are now a muddle of symptoms, laboratory results, and the patient’s history that all need to be tied together to come up with a sensible diagnosis and treatment plan.

No classes due to a national holiday? My younger self would have been ecstatic since this was extra time for me to read more books and solve more puzzles. But now, this is merely a chance for me to catch up on lectures I had missed or cram information for an upcoming exam.

With burnout slowly creeping up on me, I was left to wonder whether the field of medicine had taken the spirit of my childhood away from me. But the universe seemed to respond by giving me another puzzle to solve. As I spent more time with my grandmother during the pandemic, I learned that she had been suffering from multiple canker sores, known in Filipino as “singaw.” But this was not your typical singaw that went away after a while. They had not been gone from her since her early 20s! She told me she had simply learned to live with the condition after numerous doctors told her that it was only stress causing the sores, and to simply wait until they were gone.

Upon hearing this, the inner child in me suddenly woke up. All I wanted to do was to solve this mind-boggling puzzle in front of me. For days, I tried to find an explanation for why my grandmother’s singaw persisted for decades. I pored over various medical books, research journals, and online articles. I made a list of all possible diagnoses, from simple infections to rare diseases, and crossed them out one at a time if they were unlikely to be the cause. Though the process was tedious, I eventually arrived at the most likely explanation for my grandmother’s condition—an allergy to one of the chemical compounds present in toothpaste, called sodium lauryl sulfate.

To test my hypothesis, I looked for and bought a toothpaste without this chemical compound and instructed my grandmother to use it for a few weeks. Much to my grandmother’s surprise, the severity and number of her canker sores soon greatly decreased. When I heard the good news, I couldn’t help but feel emotional; I felt like the little kid once more who had finished solving a difficult puzzle.

With the stress of online classes along with the inherent hardships of medical training, moments like this remind me of the reason I chose this path, and provide enough motivation for me to keep going. When disillusionment sets in and our vision gets clouded, one must step back and ask oneself: Bakit ba ako nag-aaral at para kanino ako nag-aaral? There is no denying that the struggle we are experiencing right now is real, but we must remember that the struggle is truly worthwhile. And this is true for anyone outside the medical field who is working just as hard for his or her goals.

So, yes, I may not know any episode of “Blue’s Clues” or the SpongeBob characters, but the events of my childhood did lead me to where I am now. From solving puzzles back then for the sake of pure enjoyment, I am now solving puzzles that hold much greater weight and responsibility. My grandmother is just the beginning of the countless lives that I hope I will be able to save and help improve for the rest of my life.

The field of medicine did not take away the spirit of my childhood; rather, it has redirected that spirit to a mission and purpose far greater than my callow self.

Time for me to read another book and solve more puzzles.

* * *

Maxine Francesco Gwyneth C. Baculo, 20, is a first-year medical student at the University of Santo Tomas-Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. He is a big fan of Dr. Ronnie Baticulon and Dr. Ting Tiongco, among other authors.

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