Shared Stories: Medical Challenges

As one of the new physicians assigned to serve a hospital under construction in a rural area, Dulce Ruelos and her team found themselves operating by flashlight and Coleman lantern on a seriously injured patient. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.


By Dulce Ruelos

In 1962, fresh out of medical school, I worked as a volunteer at the 100-bed general hospital at the capital town of my province in the Philippines. I had passed the medical board exam, and when the results were released I acquired my license to practice medicine.  

I applied for and got the position of adjunct resident physician. At that time, this hospital was the only one that accepted inpatients, except for a few available beds at private clinics.  

Government hospitals offered free medical services while private hospitals were expensive. As a result, there was a heavy workload for the limited medical and nursing staff.  Volunteers were therefore warmly accepted and welcomed.

This was an unpaid position for me except for an $8.00 laundry allowance and the free meals and board and lodging at the Nurses’ Home. Even though I was a new doctor, I was able to stay there because most of the nurses were married and lived in their own homes.

After a few months, an opportunity came when a new, 25-bed emergency hospital was set to open at a different town. Our chief resident physician was appointed chief of the new hospital. He recruited me and another adjunct resident, my friend Elsie, to join him. Both Elsie and I were appointed resident physicians

We relocated to the town where the new hospital was being constructed and we rented a place to stay at a town close to the unopened hospital. We were not ready and in no position to start hospital operations.  

There was no running water or electrical power. The hospital beds and supplies were still unpacked. The pharmacy items and supplies, such as instruments, oxygen tanks, and medicines, were not available. The outpatient department was not operational. 

Under this difficult situation, a few of the nurses who were from the city were homesick and felt like quitting. They were not used to the meager rural accommodations, but they stayed on.
A few nights later, we had our first major encounter with reality. News spread around the village that medical people had arrived in their area in anticipation of the opening of the hospital.

One night there was a lot of commotion outside our rented house. Several men from the village carried a patient in a hammock. They demanded medical attention for his serious injury.  
The patient was a farmer who was gored in his abdominal area by a water buffalo we call a carabao. His injury was deep enough that some loops of intestine protruded out of his wound. How could we turn away a patient in his condition?

We took him to a room at the hospital where we gave the best treatment we could under the circumstances. The instruments were sterilized by boiling and his gaping wound was sutured under flashlights and Coleman lanterns similar to those used here on camping trips. Under these conditions we had to be resourceful and ingenious, learning to improvise. Without the aid of laboratories and X-rays, we relied heavily on taking a detailed medical history and giving a comprehensive physical examination.

This very first patient was a success story resulting in his complete recovery without any complications. News traveled fast, and very soon patients started to come whether we were ready for them or not. Eventually the hospital got a generator, an ambulance, and a complete medical staff.

I worked at this hospital for close to a year before marrying my husband, and a year after that I moved to Manila to have my first baby.