As a young girl, dinner time was never dull in our home in the Philippines. While my mum is an excellent cook, we often received unusual dishes from patients at my father's medical practice. One night, we were served Betute, deep fried rice-field frogs stuffed with minced pork. The frogs appeared like they were very pregnant. In addition, they arrived with a side of Kamaru (Mole crickets cooked in garlic, onions and vinegar), Kilawin Puso Ng Saging (Banana Blossoms cooked in vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, and onions) and deep fried catfish served with a fermented rice and fish condiment.
In this case, Dad's patient came from Tarlac, his home town, so she showered him with Kampampangan dishes from his childhood. One Catholic nun always brought him a container of Dulce Gatas, a sweet confection made from Water Buffalo milk and sugar. Several times, we giggled when we were served drumsticks with extra-long legs, only to learn they were the prized free-ranged chickens of the patient, making for the tastiest Tinola, chicken broth dish. When my father's patients found out he liked dogs, they kept giving him puppies. One day, we had a total of seven dogs in our home. Many times, we received farm fresh eggs, live chicken, vegetables, fruits, seafood, imported chocolates and special cakes.
My late father was a doctor, a gastroenterologist to be exact, and a professor in the top medical school in the Philippines. My father treated nuns, priests and people from all walks of life. When he began his private practice in the 1960s, there was no organised free health care system in our country. He believed in treating his patients, even if they had no money to pay. He accepted edible and non-edible gifts, as a form of gratitude from his non-paying patients.
When my father was dying two years ago, I met several of his patients. They cried telling me that my father was more than just a doctor to them. One told me that Dad has treated three generations of her family. One gave us a Father's Day cake because my dad had been like a father to them, giving them more than just medical advice. It was never just a fifteen-minute consult. He would thoroughly get to know his patients to get to the root of their medical problems.
They cried telling me that my father was more than just a doctor to them. One told me that Dad has treated three generations of her family.
To his patients, he was not just a gastroenterologist. He was their family doctor. They consulted him for any medical concerns. There was no need for a GP referral, prior to seeing him, so it was a direct relationship between the patient and the doctor. The close bond may give a sense that we lived in a small town, even though we lived in overpopulated metro Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
All the doctors I had seen growing up from my paediatrician, to my ophthalmologist, sports medicine doctor, dermatologist, and EENT, were all friends of my father's. Being friends, doctors had an unspoken rule that they don't charge family members. So they refused to bill me. Instead, I too, went bearing gifts, sometimes cakes, or pastries or more substantial gifts. They knew me personally, and a visit to a doctor was always more than just my medical concerns. It was social.
Moving to Melbourne, 22 months ago, I was at a loss with who to see. My doctor was now a stranger. I would hand over my health card to the receptionist, I did not have to buy gifts for my doctor. I found her by Googling the nearest GPs from my CBD home. The first medical appointment in my new home felt sterile and unfriendly. The doctor poked a tongue depressor on my mouth, prescribed several medicines for my sore throat, and showed me the door.
I then tried another doctor a friend recommended. While the entire fee was covered by Medicare, she dismissed my concerns. After more research, I eventually found my current GP at a private practice. He didn't mind that I asked many questions. He kindly explained things to me, sometimes even drawing it so I could better understand how my body works. He's seen me through my acid reflux during the long stressful 112-day lockdown, as well as other health concerns in the past few months. I am the type of person who worries about little aches and pains. He listens patiently without judging or making me feel like I'm a hypochondriac. I feel seen and heard.
He didn't mind that I asked many questions. He kindly explained things to me, sometimes even drawing it so I could better understand how my body works
For a single woman, living abroad, away from her family and friends, it means the world to have a GP who cares about your health. I could let go of my fears of being alone in dealing with my medical concerns. One day, as he bid me goodbye, my GP said, "Send me links of your articles, I'd like to read them." At that moment, I realised I was not just one of his 15-minute consults. He actually remembered me and he cared.
I am grateful that Australia has a free healthcare system. I am relieved to know I have access to medical and hospital care when I need it. For someone new to Australia, it may feel foreign to open up to new doctors, strangers I don't know from Adam. It may seem impersonal, at first. But somehow, it's comforting when you find a warm and caring health ally. I wonder how he will feel if I show up one day bearing gifts like exotic Filipino dishes or a cake I baked.
Maida Pineda is a freelance food and travel writer, and author of two books. Follow her on IG at @themaidastouch