All Souls’ Day reflections: It’s our indifference, not cancer, that’s killing us

A CASE of too little, too late for Dr. Richard Teo

AS Catholics the world over troop to the cemeteries today to remember and honor their dead, I recently came across this item circulating on Facebook about a certain Dr. Richard Teo, Singaporean, I assume, who supposedly passed away less than a month ago after a 19-month battle with Stage 4 lung cancer.

It couldn’t have been timelier as we call to mind our dearly departed loved ones, while we contemplate, perhaps, on our own mortality. Death is a subject most people, especially the youth, love to brush aside, treat remotely or ascribe to other people, especially the elderly.

It’s as if death can’t happen to anyone, anytime. Who me? But not today, okay? It’s human nature at work, pure and simple, of course. For all we know, death is probably no different from a movie star, writer or public figure we idolize.

The more we embrace and get to know the Grim Ripper, the more we demystify and rob him of his hold on us. Well, to worldly material boys and girls like us, that’s easier said than done.

23-minute transcript

Anyway, the post (which I also reposted on my Facebook wall), a transcript of Teo’s 23-minute speech to aspiring dental surgeons (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umLkfADe17s), revolved around his life as a carefree cosmetic surgeon and the priority he put on money and worldly possessions.

All these years, the 40-year-old doctor was on top of the world and at the top of his game, and no force on earth could ever knock him off his perch. Or so he thought.

Teo also confessed to his inability to feel empathy for patients, especially those with terminal illnesses, while he was an intern. He knew all the medical terms and how they applied to dying patients he looked after, but his ability to feel for them was missing all those years. For him, it was just a job, and as soon as his shift was over, he couldn’t wait to punch out and attend to seemingly more important private matters.

It’s quite ironic, he said, that life took him to where he is now—at death’s door, before he finally felt other people’s pain. Before that, he was so concerned with material possessions and the chance to show off his wealth by driving around in a supposedly egalitarian society like Singapore in his gleaming silver Ferrari.

He now realized that, instead of sharing with them his joy, he was unwittingly rubbing salt on other people’s wounds, especially his friends and relatives, who were beside themselves trying to make ends meet, while he went about town in his fast cars taking in the sunshine and feeling the wind on his face.

“Successful”

Teo first trained as an ophthalmologist, but when he realized how slow the money would be vis-à-vis the amount of time he would have to put in, he shifted midway to become a cosmetic surgeon.

And he was “successful” at it, earning quite a pile from people as far away as Indonesia who wouldn’t think twice of plunking thousands of dollars to fix their noses or get a boob job.

No one considers the lowly “GP,” general practitioner, a hero, he said, but everyone idolizes a successful cosmetic surgeon like him. Success, of course, is equated in a capitalist and Chinese society like Singapore in terms of money.

He didn’t discourage his audience from excelling in their chosen field and, in the process, becoming famous and wealthy themselves.

What he warned them against was pursuing wealth for its own sake. It would be a futile and empty task as he himself discovered. By becoming enslaved by the thought of making more money, he eventually started treating patients not as persons, but as sources of income waiting to be milked dry.

His charmed life vanished in a snap after he learned March last year, after a series of medical tests, that he was suffering from Stage 4 lung cancer. It started with a nagging backache, which he initially attributed to a slip disk from too much weightlifting.

His initial reaction to the life-changing news was typical. Teo, a health buff, who used to spend hours in the gym, was in denial at first. He considered himself invincible to such diseases.

Shell of his old self

Eventually, his condition sunk in as the pain became more unbearable. The once young, robust man you see in the picture above became a shell of his old self, as seen in the YouTube video, as disease took hold of him and began to ravage his body.

But, if we are to go by his testimony, a more dramatic transformation was also happening inside him. His outlook began to change as he discovered things that once eluded him: true measures of self-worth and happiness found in the company of loved ones and real friends, and not in his Ferrari and the ephemeral buddies in the many car clubs he was once part of.

My friend Kitty, who, like me, is always questioning and a perennial skeptic, upon seeing my post, had this to say: “Is there something I don’t understand about this doing the rounds? (Like the dead guy when he was alive and smokin’?) And why I don’t feel sorry for this guy?

“Why must one wait for a death sentence before ‘becoming nice,’ when one should be nice to begin with like from kindergarten or at least the first day of med school?

Seeing the light

“I know so many people who ‘saw the light’ after getting some cancer/death memo or another, and if they weren’t nice to me pre-cancer, why should we be friends post-memo?

“I don’t have cancer, but if I did, I’d still be the bitch I am today (oh, maybe worse because I’ll lose my hair and be in pain). Tomorrow, we might find out [that] this is a hoax like that dying guy in a wheelchair.”

Here’s my reply to dear Kitty: “True, but for some people, it takes something as dramatic as Stage 4 cancer for them to mend their ways. I checked an accompanying video, and the guy did look old and sick. If it’s a hoax, then it’s their problem. My only question is how can a supposedly very sick man deliver a speech this long without collapsing.”

Teo’s speech was a bit rambling, but if you get to the gist of it, you will come to the conclusion that he wasn’t exactly a “bad” man. In fact, in the worldly scheme of things, he was just being typical. He was, like many of us at one point in our lives, too self-absorbed and simply indifferent to the plight of others. In a way, it’s our indifference, and not cancer, per se, that’s killing us.

THE GRIM ripper, er, mower at Libingan ng mga Bayani (Joan Bondoc, http://www.inquirer.net)

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