A Woman for all Seasons

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Very few physicians live to practice their medical career for half a century, much less, seventy years. But for those who know the radiant colleague we are honoring in my column this week, it will be no surprise that this Grand Lady is, once again, an exception. This Pediatrician, national scientist, researcher, hospital administrator and medical leader has broken every record among her peers in the medical school, during her residency training, in practice, and in medical politics, here and abroad. She is an international figure, a well-recognized and most-decorated icon. She is indeed an exceptional breed all her own, a phenomenon, to say the least.

It was on November 27, 1911, when the Philippines was blessed with a beautiful baby girl born in Manila, christened Fe. Little did anybody know then that she was to be a giant in medicine, the children's angel "of the world," as her name suggested. Today, ninety one years later, this indefatigable human dynamo and impressively brilliant Fe del Mundo, M.D., the internationally renowned Filipina Pediatrician, is even more luminous, still actively caring for "my beloved children" every day at the Fe del Mundo Children's Medical Center Foundation on Banawe, Quezon City, where she has been hospital president and chief Pediatrician since 1957, more than half her life.

My admiration, pride and love for this great mentor, which has been shared by a classmate of mine in the medical school, Farida Quiambao Isip (later to be a Pediatrician herself and my lifetime room mate), started in the late 1950s when we were both students attending Pediatric classes under Dr. del Mundo. Our reverence for her grew more intense as the years went by. When Farida and I left for the United States the end of 1962, a year after our graduation from medical school, we had barely been in touch with Dr. del Mundo as the fast-paced lifestyle in the United States and our residency training had engulfed us. To our amazement, when we met her in Chicago, during one of her visits to the United States about three decades later, she still remembered us, and started recalling memories of us as her students. As always, she was lavish with her praises, sometimes to our embarrassment. When she gives a talk, her sense of wry humor has consistently been fantastic, but second only to her superior public speaking prowess. She has always been an inspiration to us and to countless others.

When I visited Dr. del Mundo on March 5, 2003 at the Children's Medical Center Foundation, on my way from Cebu to Indiana, she twice repeated a motherly advise for me "not to come home to the Philippines very often, because of the potential threat of terrorism, like the explosion in Davao recently." She knew that I fly to Cebu from Indiana every other month as Chairman of Cardiovascular Surgery of the Cebu Cardiovascular Center at Cebu Doctors' Hospital. Her somewhat frail voice and concerned look was indeed touching. I told her that my mother, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, gave me the same advice.

Dr del Mundo's practice of Pediatrics was not confined to the hospital setting. With her compassion, it has branched out to the country side for years to serve the children of the poor. Because she is unable to walk a lot anymore, she has sent various teams into the different villages of the Philippines in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, constantly sharing her wisdom, expertise and guidance with the younger Pediatricians and residents. She has adopted, and provided complete health care to, twelve barangays (villages), areas that are deprived. She still visits and supervises those barangays that are within 70 kilometers from her hospital.

For several years now, she has traveled to the United States to attend the medical reunions of her former students and medical meetings of Filipino physicians in America, successfully rallying them to each support and adopt a barangay. At 91, Dr. del Mundo has a mind still as sharp as a razor, surpassed only by her great power of persuasion and her extreme devotion to providing healthcare to children in the Philippines, especially those in the doctorless areas.

I can say without any fear of contradiction, and without personal bias or lack of objectivity, that Dr. Fe del Mundo todate is the world's greatest Pediatrician, whose 70-year active career is still going strong, and whose record obviously could be broken only by herself. Most of us, her students, have now retired from practice, but Dr. del Mundo is, like the Duracell TV commercial says, "still going and going and going and going." Many of her early pediatric patients are now great grandmothers themselves, giving her the joy of having ministered to four generations of countless families.

This whole page, much less my column, would not be enough if I were to include all her accomplishments and the honors, awards, recognitions, and accolades Dr. del Mundo has received since her medical schooling in the late 1920s and early 30s. To do justice to her brilliance, I would need a lot more space.

But allow me to tease you with a sample of her laudable lifetime achievements. But first, a Warning and a Disclaimer to my readers: Read on at your own risk. I do not assume any responsibility if, after reading the rest of this article, you will feel so small and so insignificant (as my wife and I feel) compared to this great person. I do guarantee, however, that reading on will inspire you with awe, admiration and love for this great Filipina, someone very special we, Filipinos, as a people and as a nation, can be truly proud of.

Dr. Fe del Mundo graduated as the "Most Outstanding Scholar in Medicine," a Valedictorian, University of the Philippines in 1933, and traveled to the United States with a Fellowship Grant from the Commonwealth of the Philippines, completing Pediatric courses A, B and C at Harvard Medical College in 1937, and earning an M.A. degree in Bacteriology from Boston University in 1940.

She is a woman of superior intellect, a lady with many "firsts." She is the first Filipino woman, and the first female, to be enrolled at Harvard Medical School. She is the first Filipino Diplomate of the American Board of Pediatrics; the first lady president of the Philippine Pediatric Society; Founder and first president of the Philippine Woman's Medical Association; the first woman to be elected president of the Philippine Medical Association in its 65-year history; the first Asian to be voted president of the Medical Woman's International Association.

Dr. del Mundo has been a highly decorated physician, having received countless awards, some of which are as follows: Elizabeth Blackwell Award as a Woman Doctor of World Renown; the Most Outstanding Woman in Medicine, International Federation of Women Lawyers; Distinguished Pediatrician and Humanitarian Award, International Pediatric Association; Honorary Doctorate in Science, Women's Medical College of Philadelphia and the Smith College, USA; Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service; Academician, National Academy of Science and Technology; and the National Science Award. Her great contributions to Pediatrics, including her internationally-adopted BRAT (Banana, Rice, Apple, Tea) Diet for the treatment of diarrhea, have benefited and saved hundreds of millions of children around the world.

Dr. del Mundo was Chairman of Pediatrics at the Far Eastern University, and the founder of Children's Home in Manila, the Children's Medical Center, and the Institute of Maternal and Child Health. She was Director of the City of Manila Children's Hospital, which later became North General Hospital (now Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital). She has authored more than 150 scientific articles, and became the editor-in-chief of the Textbook of Pediatrics and Child Health. For twenty some years, she has written a weekly health column for the Sunday Times Magazine of the Philippines. All her life, she has been married only to her profession and to her career in medicine.

On October 11, 2002, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presented to Dr. del Mundo the Outstanding Citizen Award in Medicine at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City, one of the eleven awards she received that year alone.

I would like to conclude this accolade for my beloved teacher by quoting an international historical figure, C.W. Nimitz, Fleet Admiral, United States Navy, who, about fifty years ago, gave Dr del Mundo a passionate tribute, a excerpt of which is as follows:

"Doctor Fe del Mundo began her medical career with an endowment of ability which made it obvious that she could be one of the very famous physicians of her generation..in this fascinating young Filipino woman, who came to Harvard University for her medical training eighteen years ago, there were seeds of greatness..Refusing to be merely a famous physician, she became something infinitely finer. She became a great physician.This very gallant woman is still working against incredible handicaps, and succeeding. She does not cry out for help, but the very nature and scope of her aspiration cry out to us in a voice that should not fall on an uncaring heart nor an unhearing ear.it is a voice that cannot be denied."

Such is our revered and beloved teacher, The Grand Lady of Pediatrics, Fe del Mundo, M.D., truly a woman for all seasons.

©2003Raoul R. Diez, M.A.O.D.