THE death of American chemist and Nobel laureate Richard Heck almost a month ago just goes to show that in the Philippines, not even a Nobel Prize can guarantee proper healthcare or a decent death.
News reports say Heck was initially brought to a private clinic due to severe vomiting but was turned away due to unpaid bills. He later ended up in a public hospital where his vital signs deteriorated within hours until he died. Five years ago, Heck won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2010 for creating the technique of binding together carbon atoms, which is now widely used in medicine, agriculture and electronics.
Heck retired in the Philippines in 2006 along with his Filipina wife. In a phone interview by the Nobelprize.org in 2010, Heck said he chose to retire in the Philippines because “it’s a nice place” and that he was doing “nothing much” but tend to his garden.
It is indeed ironic that the Philippines, which places 23rd in Forbes’ list of best places to retire, also figures in the list of the worst places to die. The country ranks 78th out of 80 countries, just a notch above Bangladesh and two notches ahead of war-torn Iraq, in the 2015 Quality of Death Index.
The index, which was devised by the Economist intelligence Unit and commissioned by the Lien Foundation, evaluated 80 countries based on its palliative care environment, particularly for people who are terminally ill or have life-threatening diseases, the affordability of care, and the quality of care, among others.
Interestingly, the study links income levels to success in palliative care, which is very telling in the case of Heck. Our government, ever the opportunist, will milk every single cent from our retirees and elderly, and will leave them to die, quite literally, when they have no money to spend.
While our government and legislators have showered our senior citizens with so-called benefits like the 20 percent discount and VAT exemption on medicines, transportation, hotels, restaurants, theaters and other perks, there is no government program that provides poor, terminally ill or elderly Filipinos with what is really essential – palliative care and a decent and dignified death.
Somehow, free movie tickets, an annual cash gift, a cake on one’s birthday, or a free Philhealth card has become the core program for “caring” for our old and our sick.
The Lien Foundation study noted that the Philippine government has no strategy to promote and develop national palliative care. Let the impoverished, and old or terminally ill die, the government seems to be saying.
For one, there is little government funding available for the palliative care of seriously ill patients. There are a “limited number of government subsidies or programs for individuals accessing palliative care services” but “the qualification criteria is often unclear, and the funds and programs are difficult to access.”
Except for the Golden Acres, we have no other government-run hospices where the elderly can spend their last few years. If there are any, these are private institutions that the poor cannot afford. For seriously or terminally ill patients, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office headed by its General Manager, Atty. Jose Ferdinand M. Rojas 2nd, has been providing poor, critically ill patients with financial assistance and free medicines. But it cannot possibly meet all of our country’s palliative care needs.
A shortage of end-of-life care workers is another reason why the country isn’t such a great place to die. Our government’s policy of labor export drains our healthcare system of doctors, nurses, and health care professionals. Most of our medical professionals are leaving for greener pastures, while we Pinoys are left with a handful who work for slave wages and long hours of work at government facilities.
We are also one of the five countries, along with Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Iran, and Iraq, which have no specialized palliative care professionals and where accreditation is inexistent. The result is disastrous and deadly, no pun intended.
This probably explains why Heck, after his wife had died, kept on trying to return to the United States. “We nearly fought, because he was insisting that he wanted to go back to the US. He would get his walker, walk outside the house and wait for a taxi, and he would say he was going to the airport to return to the US,” Heck’s nurse said.
“What the heck! I’m going soon anyways and I might as well die in an American hospital where they will at least try to cure me,” the Nobel laureate probably said.
We also find it ironic that a Nobel laureate like Heck, a man who the revolutionized the pharmaceutical and medical industry, died because he had no money to pay for medicines or good medical care.
There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of nameless and faceless Hecks all over the country whom our government has left to die, without being given any palliative or medical care whatsoever.
That’s the problem when old, sick or dying folks can no longer be counted on for votes.