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He Can, He Did

Mothers at the Fabella Hospital breastfeed their newborn babies. FILE PHOTO/JONJON VICENCIO

CEBU, Philippines - I paused for a moment after emerging from a grim discussion with friends on the general state of health care in our country.  Cramped wards, high infant and maternal mortality rates, dire hospital conditions-it is astonishingly difficult to find that glimmer of hope to make quality health care accessible to many of those who truly need it.

However, difficult is a far cry from impossible because although something may pose a particular challenge, there exists the possibility of turning things around and shedding slivers of hope.  This is particularly true when it comes to community health care in the country and this is something that Dr. John Michael Flores Delliararte, 27, saw and challenged even before he earned his degree in medicine at the Ateneo de Zamboanga University School of Medicine.

Although driven to achieve, Doc Mike, as he is fondly called by his friends, is best known for his mild demeanor-exactly the one thing that can put his patients at ease.

It is interesting to note though that Doc Mike initially set his heart out for a career in Law, which explains his choice of taking up Political Science as an undergraduate degree following his fascination on the battle of legal jargons during what was then the impeachment trial of former Philippines President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

"I'd like to blame my youth for the sudden turn of priorities. I wanted something new and so I took up medicine, there wasn't any internal intellectual discussion about the decision I just simply went for it like most youth fresh off college who didn't know what to do. But I can sincerely say that  have no regrets when I made that decision," he said with a shrug.

Since then, Doc Mike has kept moving forward to pioneer two life-changing projects born following his immersion at Lakewood, a 4th class municipality in Zamboanga del Sur  since his first year at Med school.

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"I never set out to be the first or to be the best. I admire others who have this mantra; however I consider this too huge of a pressure to put onto myself," Doc Mike explained. 

The establishment of the I Can initiative which paved the way for safe drinking water in Lakewood was serendipitous, to say the least.  Born from a class requirement to conduct a survey to identify their assigned community's most pressing health concern, Doc Mike would never have had imagined it would blossom into a full-fledged organization of volunteers who have dedicated much of their time to engaging people through projects on community development, health care, wealth management and disposal, and social enterprise.

After finding out that diarrhea was one of the problems in Lakewood, Doc Mike already had an inkling that perhaps, there was something wrong with the quality of the water in the area.  True enough, tests showed that the water the residents of Lakewood were drinking were infected with fecal coliform which came from human and animal waste.

"I pondered on how to provide a means of non costly, convenient, eco-friendly means of household water disinfection. I thought of developing a device that will harness the sun's energy to disinfect water by converting aluminum cans into solar reflectors to disinfect water. I created a prototype and scientifically established its efficacy through laboratory tests. After this, I needed to create solar reflectors for the community in Lakewood," he pointed out.

To turn the vision of creating the device that could give the people of Lakewood potable water, Doc Mike joined forces with a host of volunteers and partnered with various schools in Zamboanga, and even as far as Luzon, to transform these schools into collection points and information centers on proper waste management.  What started out as a goal to collect 5000 aluminum cans ended up in the collection of 8000 aluminum cans that was more than enough to get him started in a project that could save the lives of many.

"Diarrhea still remains a leading morbidity in our country and one of the causes of this problem is contaminated drinking water source. Providing potable water to our communities will help decongest the disease burden in our communities," he said.

Following the success of his project, Doc Mike has been encouraged by many to patent the idea to keep other people from encroaching on what was perceived as a stroke of genius.

"I refused to do so since I believe that a technology that improves people's quality of life should be free for everyone to replicate and use. I also made it a point to use non-costly materials, easy to follow guidelines of construction, operation, and maintenance so that it will be readily used and built by any community person," Doc Mike refuted.

Another problem in the community that Doc Mike and his classmates found was the poor condition of maternal health care.  From a yearly average of 446 births from 2008 to 2010, only an average of 28 births were delivered at the Local Health Unit while the rest transpired at home without any proper sanitation.

Drawing inspiration from the bottle house at Guatemala, a house partially made up of bottles filled with plastic bags, Doc Mike harnessed the support of the community and the local government to collect 7000 PET bottles and fill them up with sand and cement to serve as the walls of what was known as the Halfway House, which would later on serve as the municipality's lying-in center for mothers on the verge of giving birth.

The support for the halfway house was about as phenomenal as the support they received for the I Can Movement.  Not only did the entire community take part in the construction of the Halfway House, but the local government pledged their support, as well, in the form of donating a small lot and funding the project.  This experience eventually gave the community a sense of ownership of the project.

"In all our projects, we want that the people can proudly say that they did it themselves. Community participation is always central to our projects .We must make the people realize that it is not only the government, institutions, health care professionals who are socially accountable to them but most importantly, they are socially accountable to themselves, as well. This is why our projects are geared at community participation. We make them realize that by their own effort, they can create things that allow them to access healthcare like the Halfway House through which we make them realize that they have a stake in their own health," Doc Mike explicitated.

He emphasized the important role that health professionals and medical students play in empowering people in the communities to be the solutions to their own problems, especially when it comes to health care.

Completing and sustaining both the I Can Movement and the Halfway House did not come without any challenges, though, and looking back at both endeavors' humble beginnings could only make Doc Mike take a deep sigh of relief at how kind the Lord has been in being his source of strength all throughout.

"One of the challenges we had was the hopelessness of people, how they have been fatigued from unfulfilled promises by numerous organizations, institutions, and administrations that came their way. Gaining the people's trust was not easy but it was a happy experience. Our frequent interactions with them in our health education and blood pressure monitoring frequently turned from health related conversations to life stories," said the self-confessed Playstation Final Fantasy junkie.

Doc Mike added that at the end of the day, the goal for both of their projects is not just to make the lives of the people in communities like Lakewood better but it is to foster a unique sense of care and the belief that communities must exist to help other, underserved communities.  This keen sense of pagtutulongan and bayanihan are what Doc Mike believes should be at the core of every move to build the nation.

"I am no different from community doctors or any other doctor for that matter. This is basically why there is no excuse not to engage the community. We are accountable to the people, not only to our clinics, hospitals, and rural health centers. There is so much that we can do beyond what has been prescribed to us by the traditional description of our profession.  The world of medicine is changing and doctors must see their potential as socio-political agents and change-makers," he said.

While many others in his profession seek to leave the country in search for better and greener pastures, Doc Mike believes that he is happiest when he is serving the community hospital in his area.  Despite the success of both the halfway house and the I Can Movement, Doc Mike continues to gear himself for bigger dreams.

"I want to be a surgeon someday, establish my own clinic and still be engaged in community and global health," he said.  "I want to be a living example that being a clinician, being in community, and global heath don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I want to uplift medical students and doctors to unite to bring back health into the hands of the people. I know there is still a long way to go but I believe that the Lord will deliver His promises." (FREEMAN)

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