BY RICKY MONTECILLO
July 1, 2016
About the same time last year, my wife Tina and I were drinking in our small porch as we usually do. I remember telling her that from where I came from, and considering that I never finished college or liked school at all, I was quite contented with how my life with her turned out. I am not an ambitious person and neither have I longed to be rich.
I told her, as we talked about our life that night, that with our three children all grown up, done with school and already working, and having a modest house and some material luxuries, my life as I know it is “perfect”. As a bonus, I have a beautiful successful wife who after all these years remains to be as attractive or even more than when I first met her.
“I cannot ask for anything more” I said. At that point, I was expressing my gratitude for my good fortune, a perfect family with no serious problems.
About two weeks later, sometime in early June, Tina and I had just come from her Company outing in Baserri in Lipa Batangas, when she started complaining about some pain in her upper back. I immediately assured her that it was probably because she was tired from the excursion.
A few days later, the pain wouldn’t go away and we had to see an orthopaedic doctor but he wasn’t able to address the problem. Tina was then referred to a spine specialist who ordered an MRI of her lower back and some other tests but they didn’t show any problem. She also underwent an EMG or Electromyography, to test her muscles and nerves. Still, they didn’t find anything wrong.
At that point, we were getting worried because her pain was worsening and the doctors couldn’t find the problem. We were googling all sorts of illnesses and it added to our anxiety.
She was also made to attend some therapy sessions, in an attempt to ease her pain but it didn’t really improve her condition.
On June 12, Philippine Independence Day, Tina, Samantha my daughter and I went on a holiday in Bali, Indonesia. On our 2nd day in Bali, Tina started complaining about her back and that she was already feeling some numbness of her buttocks, legs and feet. In fact she was already having difficulty walking and she could no longer go around. That night, I kept on massaging her back because it was very painful. What was worrying for us was her numbing. She became downhearted and kept on crying.
Upon arriving in Manila after the trip we went to the doctors again. After a consultation with the spine specialist, the doctor advised that we should go and consult a neurologist.
Frustrated and very worried, we went home in time for dinner. During our dinner, my daughter Samantha told us that she was talking to her office mate about Tina and by stroke of coincidence, her office mate mentioned that her father, Dr. Amado San Luis is a veteran Neurologist in UERM hospital. We immediately set an appointment with him the next day.
Dr. San Luis looked like a senior and veteran doctor and he was very nice, almost fatherly like. He did some tests on Tina’s reflexes and even made her walk in the office. After the tests, he suggested another MRI of the upper spine at the Cardinal Santos Memorial Hospital.
Tina underwent an MRI and the following day, we ourselves got the test results and we were to bring to Dr.San Luis in UERM. In the car, Tina couldn’t help but read the results written by the specialist. It read that she had a tumor inside her spinal cord and it appeared to be malignant. And when she googled the meaning of the terms, she cried and cried because it was saying that she had cancer. I cried with her.
When we reached the clinic of Dr. San Luis and he confirmed to us the results and he was also very sympathetic. He asked if we were religious and he said prayers can do a lot. We could not believe what we were hearing. Our “perfect world” had just crumbled. It was the saddest day of my life. The prospect of losing the love of my life, my perfect partner, stared me in the face. My Tina, my beautiful and wonderful wife of 30 years, was going to die.
I cannot begin to tell you how deeply sad and distressed I was. I’ve seen death before when two of my dear brothers also succumbed to cancer. The ordeal was always heavy and depressing. But when we found out that Tina , my Tina, was faced with the dreaded disease, my entire being was shattered.
My poor Tina. She was always fit and healthy. Always exercising and watching her diet. How on earth did she get a tumor?
When we got home, I tried to comfort her. She was extremely sad. But I remember as we lay in bed that afternoon, we agreed not to question God. Times like this, the natural tendency of people is to find blame and be angry. But for some reason, we knew it was wrong to question our God.
When my daughter arrived home and we told her the bad news she embraced her mother tightly and cried like a little child. “No mom, noooo!” she kept on saying as she hugged her mother. That sad scene will forever be etched in my mind. Then we called up my son Paolo and met him in Project Pie in Pasay.
Paolo was going to get married that December. When Tina told her the situation, he was calm and said that everything was going to be okay. Paolo is strong and he is not one to cry in public. This somewhat helped us to be strong too.
It was harder when we phoned Carlo, my eldest who lives in the States. He was devastated. He is our first born and he was very emotional about it. Our family essentially revolves around Tina, being the mother of our children and it was so depressing.
Dr. San Luis suggested that we see a neurosurgeon. He arranged for an appointment with a certain Dr. Mercado in Cardinal Santos hospital.
But then I thought of my friend who also had a brain tumour and asked her who her doctor was. She referred us to Dr. Vesagas also of Cardinal Santos Hospital. When we went there and met him, he explained that he was more of a brain surgeon and that Tina needed spine specialist.
Coincidentally he said, “the whole team is right here now”. And that’s when we met with Dr. Eduardo Mercado, Dr. Michael Louis Gimenez and and Dr. Gilbert J. Rañoa, Cardinal Santos’ neurosurgeons who are spine specialists. They studied the MRI of Tina’s cervical spine and did some reflex tests on her.
Dr. Mercado is a tall and senior doctor with a booming voice. He speaks like a professor and has a reputation of being the best neurosurgeon in the country. After doing some reflex tests on Tina and after having examined the MRI results, he explained to her the situation, as I listened.
Tina’s symptoms, of tingling and numbness of her legs and hips, including pains and back discomfort is being caused by the tumor inside her spinal cord. The spinal cord he explained is very much like the brain. It is made up of nerves and sensors that are responsible for all our body functions.
The tumor is located between the C7 and the T 1. Meaning it’s in between the last cervical spine and the first Thoracic spine. It’s in the upper portion of the spine. Left alone, the tumor could grow and affect her body functions including the brain.
It is therefore imperative to remove the tumor by surgery. The upside is it is located at the rear or posterior of the spine making it more accessible. The surgery will take about 5-6 hours. Tina will temporarily feel weakening of the senses of her legs. She will probably need to stay in the hospital for 7-10 days and physical therapy will immediately commence.
She will need a private nurse. Dr. Mercado expects her to recover in 1 month. Whether the tumor is malignant or not will be determined by biopsy. He said to think and believe “BENIGN”!
Dr. Mercado somehow gave us hope and uplifted our spirits. While there was a chance that the tumor was malignant, he said there was no point of worrying because that can only be determined through a biopsy after the surgery. Tina was very brave all the while that Dr. Mercado was explaining things to us.
Upon learning of Tina’s condition, her sister Carmel immediately flew out to come home from the US and be with her.
That weekend, we went to the Shrine of St. Padre Pio in Sto. Tomas Batangas. It is a newest shrine in the Philippines. We heard mass there and for some coincidence, one of the church ladies approached Tina and asked her to be one of the offerers. During the offertory, as I watched Tina march back from the altar, the afternoon sun shone on her face and I swear, she looked like she was glowing. As she sat down beside me, I whispered to her, “Gagaling ka.”
Days before the operation, Dr. San Luis told us that his friend who is a nun was in the verge of death. He asked us to write letters to God, which she would hand carry to heaven. We wrote our petitions in earnest, hoping and believing that our letters would be read in heaven. I asked that Tina’s life be spared. The nun passed away a couple of days later.
We checked in on July 6, 2015, at the Cardinal Santos for Tina’s spine surgery first thing in the morning the following day, July 7. The day of the surgery was the longest day of my life. It was nerve wracking and distressful. My dear wife is undergoing a delicate spine operation and we would soon find out if indeed she had cancer. During her operation, we waited. I went to the hospital chapel downstairs and literally knelt down on all the 21 statues of saints and prayed like I never prayed before.
Tina’s parents were also in the room waiting. After about 7 hours, Dr. Mercado came to the room and explained to us what happened. They opened up her spine and got a piece of the tumor. They had a pathologist immediately get an initial assessment and the tests showed that it was benign!
I can never forget that moment when Dr. Mercado sat down with Tina’s mother and said that wondrous word, “benign”. My Tina, the love of my life, does not have cancer and she will live longer and she will not die as we feared. There will be no need for further treatment, no chemotherapy, no radiation and she can live a normal life.
The Bigwigs in heaven answered all our prayers. That was a year ago and while Tina has to live with some discomforts in her back and some numbness in her legs because of nerve damage, she is now healthy and happily alive.
This experience has brought our family closer and our love for one another, stronger. It has also strengthened our faith in the good Lord. I learned through this ordeal that no life is perfect no matter how comfortable and lucky one may think. Grateful as I was in feeling that I had everything, God reminded me that there can never be a perfect life without Him at the center.