Monday, September 1, 2014

Fusion of Medicine and Cuisine for Healing

Thanks to digitization of Korean annals and the creative mind of Lee Byung-hoon, the blockbuster television series Jewel in the Palace was produced. Amazing how a single line in the annals of Joseon Dynasty uttered by the king—  “No one knows about my ailments as Jang-geum does” can inspire a commercially successful historical fiction drama, and served as a proponent of the Korean wave.  The film was exported to 91 countries and translated into many languages including Tagalog. As of this writing, it is aired over GMA 7.

At a time when royal doctors were men, it was extraordinary that a woman who should be just a nurse would be more informed about the king’s medical condition. Because Jang-geum’s origins were unknown, the fictional account made her a royal kitchen apprentice who rose to prominence because of her scholarly mind, culinary skills, and integrity. In the drama, she has been consistently portrayed as researcher of the healing properties of fruits, vegetables, seafoods, fowls and animals that comprise the ingredients of recipes served in the palace.

Dae Jang-geum, which means “The Great Jang-geum” is the first and only lady physician in the royal court of 16th century Joseon Dynasty in Korea performed by Lee Young-ae in the blockbuster television series Jewel in the Palace, directed by Lee Byung-hoon, aired over Japan in 2003 and exported to 91 countries, earning over US$100 million worldwide.

First Lady Surgeon

Jang-geum’s career progressed as she continued to be interested on food that can alleviate if not completely heal the ailments of the royal family, particularly  the king. There was a time she prevented the spread of an epidemic. She sewed together the wrecked abdomen of an animal that jumped over a barbed wire fence. In the ultimate attempt to save the king’s life at a time when the use of anesthesia was already known, Jang-geum proposed to perform surgery of the dying king’s intestine, but was opposed vehemently specially by the mother queen, despite the king’s willingness and trust in Jang-geum’s competence.  The king’s body was considered sacred. Towards the end of the novel, Jang-geum delivered a woman’s infant by caesarian section, thus saving lives of both mother and child.

Nuggets of Wisdom

Nuggets of wisdom about food preparations abound throughout the film like precious jewels. This tele novela elevates culinary art into respectable, even glamorous endeavor, worthy of the passion and skills of charming, intelligent professionals.

Fish gills, considered wastes even by poorest of the poor, are in fact, very rich source of protein at no cost at all, as these are ready to be thrown away. These can be turned into irresistible appetizer by the hands of a master chef. Spoiled, rotten fishes can also be made into tempting side dish.

Extremely sour or bitter fruits considered useless and fit for garbage bins can be made into delicious desserts by cooking in soy sauce and sugar.

The lowly patola can be used as flour substitute. It is easier to digest and perfect for people with sensitive stomachs and weak digestive systems.

Much as the film is about skills, dedication and integrity— Jang-geum cooked from the heart and desired to gladden the hearts of those who would partake of her meals; even when she temporarily lost her sense of taste, she was able to continue creating excellent menus as she “retrieved” flavors from her mind, being unable to taste her coking; it is also about unscrupulous, power-hungry individuals who use culinary skills for evil purposes, to the extent of poisoning the queen, causing abortion, giving death concoctions to a rival colleague to hasten a protegee’s ascendancy to coveted position.

Essentially about love of fellowmen

The royal kitchen is a metaphor for the concrete jungle of our generation : the corporate world and boardroom: even government offices and every kind of workplaces from factories to assembly lines— all replete with cunning, scheming, intrigues, strategizing and politicking to reach the top of corporate ladder the shortest time possible, to satisfy personal ambitions at all costs no matter who gets hurt or demolished.

One of the royal kitchen’s officials, Madame Jeong eloquently puts it, “ I fell in love with the palace the moment I first saw it. Little did I knew that it was inhabited by people obsessed with power and wealth despite the evanescence and emptiness of these things.” She admonished Lady Han, Jang-geum’s mentor, to lead with integrity.

The film is about pursuing one’s passion with a pure heart and not giving up the journey no matter how numerous and tough are the obstacles. It is very Biblical. We struggle not for victory, but because we know the righteous are already victorious. We are more than conquerors. This is what the film is telling us as it dramatizes how, despite the enemy’s dirty tricks and maneuvers, Lady Han won the cooking duel, after which she was proclaimed chief administrator of the royal kitchen.

In the ultimate cooking battle when the only dish to be cooked was steamed rice, wherein the two combatants had to use the same rice , water, fuel, stove, utensils and serving dishes— the one who emerged winner was not the one who knew the trick to cook soft rice to please the royal taste, in the pursuit of power and control; but the one who loved purely her people from royalty to commoner, who through long years of study on how to please various palates, was able to cook a 3-in-1 steamed rice— soft at the top, medium soft in the middle, and “hard” at the bottom with crispy crust (tutong). The royal men prefer soft rice while queens and concubines like medium soft, while the commoners who are a majority of Lady Han’s colleagues were used to eating “hard” rice and crust. Love is the highest form of wisdom, and this is all we need to know.

Published in Health & Lifestyle, August 2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Medical Science in a Dystopian Light

The first human organ transplant was a kidney transplant performed in 1954. The donor of the kidney was the identical twin of the recipient and therefore there was no immune rejection of the organ.
The recipient lived for eight years following the transplant and the surgeon who performed the transplant, Dr. Joseph Murray, went on to win the Nobel Prize for this work. The recipient of the first heart transplant, performed in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard, lived only 18 days. The patient did not die because the new heart failed, but because of pneumonia that the patient acquired due to the patient’s immune system being compromised by the anti-rejection drugs that he had to take.
These two cases illustrate both the promise and the challenges of organ transplantation: donor organs can greatly extend life, but there is a critical shortage of donors and, unless the donor is the identical twin of the recipient, the recipient’s body will always reject the donor organ.
In order to combat this rejection, the patient must take lifelong anti-rejection drugs which compromise the immune system and greatly increase the risk of the patient dying from infections.
In the 1960s, anti-rejection drugs were very poor; hence very few organ transplants took place. In the 1970s, better anti-rejection drugs, particularly cyclosporine, were developed and by the late 1970s many heart transplant patients were living up to five years with their donor hearts.
In 1983, the FDA approved cyclosporine for use in organ transplantation, and the first lung transplant patient survived more than six years. Although the improved anti-rejection drugs increased the life expectancy for patients receiving organ transplants, they came with harmful side effects that shortened the recipient’s natural life span. In addition to the side effects, the anti-rejection drugs are also very expensive and must be taken for as long as the patient lives.
Such is the historical fact behind British dystopian (from “dystopia” which is an undesirable society, even terrifying as opposed to “utopia” which is a desirable, perfect society) science film (2010), Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same title (2005). Available from online book and film stores like and Barnes &
Parable of human mortality
The film begins in a British boarding school where the children are special, extreme care is taken concerning their health. They are genetically engineered to provide human spare parts when they mature. Most of them “complete” (die) after their third donation.
Many would want to complete earlier and nobody wants to live beyond fourth donation, because life would be very hard— no more ‘carer’ and they just wait and watch until they are switched off. They have no parents, they cannot have babies, but they can have sex. Their last chance at happiness is to have a “deferral,” meaning, two people in love can live together for three years before they start donating their organs. But this proves untrue, as the authorities said there is no such thing.
The story is narrated by Kathy H., in a love triangle with Tommy and her best friend Ruth. Both Ruth and Tommy “complete” before Kathy does, as she volunteers to be a carer for donors. She serves as carer of both Ruth and Tommy, briefly at different times, after 10 years they have been apart. When Tommy dies, Kathy is tired of being a carer and wants to start at becoming a donor soon.
Although the film is a profound parable of human mortality, the medical backdrop wherein surgeons harvest organs from clones to save lives of wealthy privileged patients, is deeply disturbing; and even more horrifying is the implied power of bio engineers who play god, creating sub humans meant for destruction after fourth donation when the clones “complete.”
Why four donations and not just harvest all the organs at once? In the Amazon online forum, a reader discusses:
“We all know that these organs are taken from a living donor—liver or portion of it, one of two kidneys, one of two lungs, intestine, ligament, femoral arteries, cornea, intestine, skin, etc. Organs are harvested in whatever order they are demanded, not a ‘’this first, this second’’ type of thing.
“The heart and lungs are not the fourth donation. It would be a waste not to use the rest of the body, and the heart is required to be pumping blood to keep organs viable. Organs are donated on an “as needed” basis. So, “completion” means brain death, though other viable organs are harvested momentarily from the donor-clone while the heart is still pumping. This is where the fear comes into play that consciousness would continue past brain death.”
Parable of medical ethics
The film is also a parable of medical ethics. How far can medical practitioners go in the name of science? Apparently, organ transplantation is intended to save lives. But whose lives (the privileged class of society), and at the expense of whose lives (the poor and marginalized like criminals, prostitutes, orphans)?
Like a great work of art, Ishiguro’s novel rendered cinematically with great success, (excellent direction and cinematography; powerful but restrained performance by the lead actresses and actor) reveals several layers of meaning and continues to provoke questions. It is all at once local (British) and international (people of various nationalities can relate with its fundamental theme and message).
All of us want to live a full life, to be married to someone we love and spend the rest of our life with, have children of our own; and we all fear death, but we all accept it, we do not run away from it when we know it is coming soon inevitably.
Terminal cancer patients do not go on a safari adventure or world tour. They just want to continue living each new day as long as possible, witness the sunrise and sunset, take a bath, enjoy sizzling coffee and buttered toast, nothing more, and yes, deaden the pain with a dose of morphine, as the doctor prescribes.
Both book and film are valuable for what they communicate but even more precious for what is left unsaid— especially for those of the Christian faith. Life on earth is just a transition. Eternal life awaits those who believe in the saving power of Christ’s resurrection.
We all want to give our best shots in whatever profession we are in, because this is the only way to live, so that at the end of the day we have no regrets. As the film narrator Kathy H. philosophizes, “We all complete.” In more ways than one.
July 2014 Health and Lifestyle

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Basics of How to Start Creative Writing

When a topic catches your interest, begin writing whatever comes into your mind that you feel passionately about, whether it is a fact, opinion, or emotion. Just keep on doing this. Can be a word, one liner, sentence, phrase, paragraph, pages. When you have gathered substantial materials, organize them chronologically or logically. You will be amazed you already have composed an article, story, or poetry.

This was how I was able to come up recently with a film review of Never Let Me Go on DVD. I recalled I've read about it as novel in Poets & Writers Magazine interview with author Kazuo Ishiguro. Then I viewed the film and was touched by its profound, poignant, beautiful message. For several days, I can't get it off my mind. It was disturbing yet liberating. It obsessed and burdened me into action. I researched about organ transplantation, which became my intro. My title was "Medical Science in a Dystopian Light." I focused on two sub themes-- Parable of Mortality and Parable of Medical Ethics.
I said the film is more valuable for what it left unsaid, which really depends on the viewer because it was like an onion, you peel each layer and you discover something new. I emailed the article to Health & Lifestyle (H&L) magazine, and keep on praying that it gets published. In its Feb 2014 issue, H&L published my article, "Healing in Linac." In recent previous years, it also published my articles about anesthesia, palliative care for terminal patients, and overcoming post partum depression. Most of my articles were published in Philippine Panorama, the Sunday magazine of Manila Bulletin.
How to Stay Creative
Writing is gift from the Highest Power. treasure and cherish it, use it because if you waste it, the gift will be taken away. Reconcile immediately with the divine in you, because without a pure heart, it is difficult to write. Anchor your writing on the truth contained in the greatest book ever written, the Holy Bible.
Immediately capture inspiring thoughts and feelings, write them down, photograph them, draw them, hide them in your heart. Read, travel, make meaning out of daily routine and experiences. These are evanescent gems. Live life to the full. Stay at peace and be joyous. Keep on learning, studying, researching. Never stop the quest for meaning and truth.

I posted this originally on my LinkedIn page; also posted on my FB page.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Healing in Linac

Healing in Linac by Cymbeline Refalda-Villamin
Published by Health & Lifestyle Magazine (FAME Inc.) Feb 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cherished Events in My Writing Life

In August 1990, I participated as one of two official Filipino representatives in the seminar on nuclear science and technology conducted by the IAEA in Canberra, Australia. The other journalist was Ms. Tita Giron of Manila Chronicle. I was then editor-in-chief of the S&T Post, the official newspaper of the Department of Science and Technology. Upon return from Australia, I wrote the editorial that said it was a technological yes but a political no for the Philippine government when it comes to adapting nuclear power as alternative source of energy; and a year later, gave birth to the story "Whom Her Soul Loveth," conceived during the inspiring sojourn, and published by HomeLife in August 1991. This first travel to a foreign country was among my most cherished events. Later I went again on official travels to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1996) and then to Bangkok, Thailand (2008) to present my technical researches.

Most cherished event in my writing life was when I participated as fellow in the prestigious Summer Writing Workshop of the University of the Philippines- Diliman, in 1976 when I was initiated into the brave, new world of writing for a social cause and not just writing for art's sake. I was senior in college at FEU. I also discovered the beauty of my heart language, Filipino.  After the workshop, I won first prize in a national essay writing contest conducted by Focus magazine.  Eventually I got to work as editorial assistant-writer at Focus, where editor-in-chief was the respected fictionist and essayist Ms. Kerima Polotan-Tuvera. Later, I wrote 11 short stories in Filipino, published mostly in HomeLife and Liwayway magazines, made into a book, Putik sa Tag-ulan at mga iba pang Kuwento by St. Paul Publications (Society of St. Paul- Makati) but for some reason, never got printed.

I am most happy about my essay, "Writing as an Adventure" because it got published in Philippine Studies- Literary Issue in 2005, and is widely indexed by online university libraries, particularly Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University.

Since 2010 when God healed me of breast cancer, I write mostly for Philippine Panorama and sometimes for Health & Lifestyle (H&L). I am excited about H&L Feb 2014 (Valentine) issue because it is publishing my ultimate love essay, "Healing in Linac." This is the best season of my writing career so far and  my cup runneth over...