On call

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THE NIGHT before her flight, Nanay tells me she has low back pain.

“Is it just my posture?” she asks at 11 PM. “It aches when I sleep with my back flat.”

I tell her I’ll have a look. “That’s nothing,” I say. I see a faint redness near her lower spine that’s painful when pressed for a long time. The lesion can be musculoskeletal, or probably a consequence of her prolonged steroid use, which is notorious for making her bones weak. She’s been taking dexamethasone for months now.

But Nanay has a healthy doubt for all the things I tell her, always interpreting everything I say with a grain of salt. This, after med school and residency training. The thought comforts me, like the fact that she still revises everything—speeches, notes, letters—she makes me write for her.

She and Tatay land safely in General Santos. Sean, my younger brother, meets them at the airport and drives them back to Marbel. While at the ICU, I hear my phone vibrate—my mother, calling in the afternoon, a highly unusual occurrence, because she knows I’m busy.

“It looks like shingles,” Nanay says. “It’s painful.”

“Are there vesicles?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Is the distribution dermatomal?”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“Dermatomal.” I spell it out. “Look it up.” One thing I’ve realized when dealing with Nanay is to make her read things instead of vebrally explaining them to her. I toss her journals, review articles, and UpToDate web clips for her reading pleasure—I save a lot of time talking, until she asks me random questions on pathophysiology.

The pain is throbbing and has spread through her left side. The vesicles look fresh, clumped together like Asian tourists on tour at the Louvre.

“Email me photos of your back.”

“I don’t email.”

“Ask Sean to do it, Nay. And go see a dermatologist ASAP.”

“Tomorrow’s a Sunday.”

“Find a way then,” I say. "You need to see a doctor there."

I hang the phone up. I see an admission at the ICU, whose condition is critical, and who dies a few hours later.

Nanay calls me up again. “I took acyclovir, like you said.”

“That’s good, Nay. I will call you as soon as I can. Give me updates. What pain meds are you taking?”

And I wait for the next phone call, my mother expectantly waiting for the answer of her second child. I'm her doctor-on-call, a privilege I cherish and am grateful for.

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