Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Taking advantage of the holidays, me, Bro. R., Bro. L, and Bro. D. went to the Priory-Hospice of St. John of God in Igulot Bocaue, Bulacan, an institution that cares for the mentally ill and abandoned under the auspices of the Brothers of Mercy founded by St. John of God. I didn't know what to expect because it's my first time to visit such a place. While on our way, I was quite apprehensive and anxious but since we're in the company of Bro. L who volunteers there, I felt reassured. The hospice is situated in the middle of a farm land accessible only through a tricycle ride from the main thoroughfare. Upon arriving there, a brother greeted us and gave us some info about how the hospice came to be including a short biography of St. John of God which I have only learned from him and through the pamphlets he provided us. Then, he showed us around to the Priory and the Chapel while briefing us what to expect when we come face to face with the patients. The Priory was a place of peace and quiet, disturbed only by the sound of the bell ringing every hour, inviting everyone to pause and pray for a minute. Even the roaming cats are very domesticated and gentle. The small chapel exudes a very pious atmosphere too with chairs similar to the ones being used in monasteries. After the tour and some picture taking, we had a little chat with Bro. Francis. At first I thought he was a priest - he's in his 70s already I think and has been staying here for more than 20 years as a brother. I learned that he hails from Boston, Massachusetts which explains the unique accent I have some difficulty understanding without listening to him very attentively.
Now comes the main event. Bro. L led us to the ward and immediately the patients recognized they have "visitors". "Hi! Ano pangalan mo? Taga saan ka?" (Hi, what's your name and where are you from?) "I'm ______ from Manila" How are you?" The guy answered me and shook my hands tight with a nice smile on his face. "Ako pala si _______, anak ako ni Ninoy Aquino and Risa Santos (By the way, I'm *****, son of Ninoy Aquino and Risa Santos) [Risa Santos who??]Oh, my gosh this is it! Welcome to the Mental Ward! I never knew Ninoy Aquino had an illegitimate child somewhere. This is going to be a great scoop for 'The Buzz' I thought. Moving on, the other guys came forward to greet us. At once we were all surrounded by them, as if we were some movie stars. We were indeed treated as celebrities and they felt so close to us already as if we've been close for some time. They were guys of different age groups - all mixed up. There's a young lad who looked like a high school student. There was Michael (not his real name), a 4-footer blabber and radio-host wannabe who keeps on talking and talking and talking. He was so pleased to have me there he was actually giving me his bracelet with different images of saints printed on it in exchange for my handkerchief. Then there was the "masseur". He looked scary to me but he was quite friendly. He gave me a back massage while I was going around and my finger joints almost got dislocated out of its socket because he pulled each of my finger rather vigorously producing that "popping" sound. Ouch. This was the patient who told Bro. D that he already killed a person somewhere which made him scared to death. "Not me," Bro D later told us, "I still have many dreams to fulfill. That gave us a good laugh afterwards.
The ward is quite spacious with beds arranged very near to each other. In my estimate there are more or less a hundred of them inside, freely roaming around and intermingling, each doing his own antics. I saw that they have an isolation room for those misbehaving inside. There's a TV set for entertainment but very few even bother to watch what is being shown on TV. One peculiar thing that will strike the uninitiated and unfamiliar is the stench emanating from poor hygiene of the patients. Most of them really smell bad although they are bathed every day. Antiperspirants and deodorants are a luxury in this place. I saw one severe case of mental retardation wherein he continually makes a howling sound running around naked, soiled, and very dirty. He's not violent though, but he fills the place with his disturbing noise. I felt for a few seconds I might lose my sanity altogether. Others who are not as severe ceaselessly mutter incomprehensible nonsense. Others were just plainly apathetic and lying down. Some of the patients were sleeping when we arrived, some seated in a corner all by themselves wearing sad faces, oblivious to our presence and those around them. One Chinese-looking guy caught my attention and I approached him. "Bro, how long have you been here?" I asked. "Two years." came his reply. "What is your case and why are you here?" The good natured and unassuming guy smiled at me and replied. "I'm a brother here." Ooops...wrong person! Gosh, it was so embarrassing! That was one of the unforgettable moments I had in that place. I couldn't distinguish the sane persons from the insane persons anymore. I'm really getting demented by now.
I can go on and on narrating everything I saw there, but one thing I also noticed is that some of them seemed quite "normal". We actually had the opportunity to talk to one or two patients there whom we were able to converse without losing our sanity. Quite a relief from the rest of them who kept us on a red alert status because we didn't know what to expect from them. Lunch time came and each of us were assigned a patient to spoon feed. Bro. L assigned me to a well-behaved patient and so finally I had a little peace of mind. My ward was indeed so well behaved he never spoke a word nor smiled at me during the whole time I was feeding him. His only preoccupation was the food that I was feeding him. (Sigh!) After the feeding time, Bro. L toured us some more to the kitchen area, the lavatory, and the backyard where a new building is being constructed for "special children". Goodbye time arrived and by this time, we were all famished so we went to Bro. A's house who served us a satisfying meal of "sinigang na baboy with puso ng saging", and papaya/pineapple for dessert while we were narrating our brief stay with the mentally-ill patients.
Our visit to San Juan de Dios Priory Hospice for the mentally ill patients made me realize how indeed very blessed I am. These patients are just a little bit fortunate than their counterparts in National Center for Mental Health in Mandaluyong because here they are treated humanely and with compassion and respect. Many of the patients inside have never had a visit from their relatives for months, some even years. Many were totally abandoned by their family and relatives and are now only left to the care of the dutiful brothers and volunteers at the hospice. This group of people I think are one of the least fortunate amongst us. They are not only "imprisoned" physically inside, but they themselves are prisoners of their own debilitating and incapacitating disease - what a suffering! Those in the orphanages and nursing homes are a little better off than these people because they at least get visited regularly and still able to live meaningful and productive lives. Even those in prison are far more fortunate than their plight. Except for some nursing students who get to visit them for their academic requirements, very few would dare to go here precisely because of fear, and yet even if they don't have full control of their mental faculties they can appreciate and feel somebody else's presence even for just a few moments. It is a small act of love that means so much to them already. What would become of these people if they're just left to fend for themselves?
I salute the Brothers of Mercy who devote themselves totally to God and to the service of these very underprivileged and unfortunate people. I can't imagine the great love and sacrifice they pour into this ministry that demands so much patience and understanding. The brothers and volunteers who serve in the institution however are very few and they need more selfless individuals who are willing to serve and devote their time to this apostolate. What does it take to be one? - an unconditional love for the least of our brethren and a total surrender of one's life to God. The rich young man of the Gospel wished to be a Companion of Jesus - and Jesus loved him - but he would not leave his possessions so he went away sad. "Will you also go away?"
Those who are interested to visit the hospice or know more about their mission can contact the Brothers of Mercy at (044) 6922365 or (0916) 9252804. You can also e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org
"I saw them so poor and ill-cared for that they broke my heart." - St. John of God.