Spotlight On – SAVANT: A Diabetes Warrior

Spotlight On
SAVANT: A Diabetes Warrior
Hannah Urbanozo-Corpuz, MD
Photos courtesy of Homer Urbanozo

THE LEFT SIDE OF THE HUMAN BRAIN is believed to be associated with linear and analytical thought. The right brain, on the other hand, is for creative and artistic touch. Having used the left side of my brain more than my right since medical school, the opportunity to write a profile feature was a welcome change, if not a challenge to my right brain that may already be cobwebby from disuse.

My first assignment was to profile a certain Dr. Jesus Peralta – senior citizen and respected artist. I reached out to him via short text messages in between doing hospital rounds. I was thankful he agreed to meet me in his home.

I reviewed our message thread later that day and was mortified to discover that I had committed grammatical errors in my hurried text messages. I googled his name in panic, and as I read his Wikipedia page, my embarrassment intensified: “…painter, photographer, graphic artist, poet, anthropologist/archaeologist, essayist, and one of the prizewinning playwrights in the Philippines.”

I thought to myself: “Of all the people I could send a grammatically erroneous message, it had to be to one of the country’s best in writing…” Lesson learned: google first, message later.

The one thing Wikipedia failed to mention though, was that the artist has diabetes. This insider information I came to know from a common acquaintance – a respected senior colleague, hence, this interview.

I expected a rather stern professor, as I made my way to his home, tagging along two of my secret weapons for times such as these – my brother, a professional photographer and my mother, an incredibly charming human being.

When we rang the bell, the door was opened by a spry-looking man with a shock of gray hair and a welcoming smile. He was sporting a blue shirt, jeans held up by suspenders, with a black smart watch and ethnic-looking leather bands sitting comfortably on his wrist.

We entered the house and found an assortment of art collection – paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media assemblages, that he tells us are mostly products of his talented wife – an art professor and former dean herself, who was there bidding us to make ourselves comfortable. The reality of a warm, wizened and good-natured grandfather quickly replaced the image of the stern professor, as I settled down to interview him.

As it turned out, Dr. Peralta won not just one Carlos Palanca award, but ten (five of which were first prizes) as a playwright, earning him a place in the hall of fame, along with the likes of Rolando Tinio and Cirilo F. Bautista. He was also bestowed the Dangal ng Haraya award by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for his work in anthropology. He served as Director of the National Museum for some time and was also involved in the restoration of Intramuros. To top off all these achievements, he was also a recipient of the Ulirang Ama award.

I was undoubtedly in the presence of greatness. I pondered this as I devoured the biscuits they offered and proceeded with the interview. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Me: How did you come to discover your proficiency in literature?
Dr. P: I was taking pre-med then, pero I found out na nahihilo ako pag nakakita ako ng dugo, so I and my friend Rolando Tinio, napagkasunduan naming mag-Philosophy and Letters sa UST. I took up Philosophy, somehow, I got invited to write for the Varsitarian, I think it was an essay I forgot what it was, but it won a prize of some sort. Hindi pa rin ako na-trigger nun. It was not something I strove for, but, how do I explain this – it was something that grew. I am also a wide reader, hindi ako selective – kaya siguro naka-develop ako ng vocabulary range at understanding ng language.
Me: Why playwriting in particular?
Dr. P: Noon kasi walang playwrights! Gusto ko yung may mai-cocontribute ako na bago. Noong time na iyon wala masyado marunong mag playwright. So playwriting is medyo challenge kasi ang plays are very…dull reading. When you write plays, you must visualize the stage, the lighting, the effects. It’s more challenging than writing short stories, essays, poems.

Me: How did you come to be involved in anthropology?
Dr. P: My first job after college is as executive secretary ng Art Association of the Philippines. I was putting up art exhibitions all over Manila, walang gumagawa nun dati. The director of the National Museum then got me to put up exhibitions. When I started putting up anthropological exhibits, I got caught…I figured I might as well have formal training so I went back to school sa UP Diliman, after which, I took my family to University of California Davis on a study grant. Doon ko nalaman na learning English in the Philippines does not qualify you to understand the full meaning of the language, all the nuances. So at the end of the day, I would type the lectures so I can read them again and understand better. Pag-uwi ko sa Pilipinas puti na buhok ko.
Me: Did you think of migrating?
Dr. P: No, talagang pang-Pilipinas ako, ang specialization ko sa anthropology ay peoples of the Philippines at Philippine pre-history. Ang focus ko ngayon is make an inventory of the intangible cultural heritage ng Pilipinas.
Me: As opposed to the tangible?
Dr. P: Lahat ng tangible objects may intangible yan, like, ang basket is a tangible thing, but the process of making that basket is intangible. Importante yung intangible aspect, kasi if you destroy one basket – you destroy just one. But if you destroy the knowledge of the process of making the basket, then no more baskets can be made.
Me: So this is what keeps you busy now, then?
Dr. P: Yes, and I continue to do listing of the peoples of the Philippines. The thing that helped me best is language – language is the culture-bearer.

You cannot think beyond the language you speak.

Me: So how does a usual day go about with you po?
Dr. P: I wake up early, at about 5am, and drink coffee. I take my breakfast, Energen. When the clock strikes 7am, if it’s on a Monday or Wednesday, I go to the office alone. We don’t work Fridays. I go home for lunch and have paksiw na bangus.

Me: Maibalik ko na po sa lunch…
Dr. P: Hahaha! Oo nga, sige, so our routine, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, kasama ko siya (Mrs. Peralta). We call a Grab, then I drop her off at Barbara’s in Intramuros because she has a gallery there, then I go to work (at the NCCA). For lunch, she picks me up naman. Usually nauunahan nya ako, andun na siya sa baba because I use the stairs, not the elevator, to add to my exercise. Then we go to Robinsons Manila for lunch. Then we do groceries. Usually by 3pm we are back home. I usually sleep then. By 4pm I am up and I tinker around the house. I am making that paper dinosaur now (pointing to a paper sculpture of what looks like a Triceratops). By 5pm I bring out my mat, I do my core muscle exercises, I do push ups, I plank…I exercise everyday, I also jog two kilometers kahit dito lang sa bahay paikot-ikot. I do a bit of TaiChi and Qi-Gong. Sa akin importante ang exercise.
Me: Si Wikipedia po hindi alam na diabetic kayo, gaano katagal na po?
Dr. P: Naku matagal na, nasa 20 years ago. I don’t really worry much about it. I let my doctors worry about it. Pinag-insulin na niya (his Endocrinologist) ako ng kahit once a day. Nung una, I don’t like sticking needles. Sabi ko sa doctor ko, kapag may needle na I will stop all maintenance medications. Siguro nung hindi na nya matiis, ang ginawa nya one day, during my check up, he just lifted my shirt, got a pen then just injected me. Wala akong naramdaman! Nung wala naman akong naramdaman na pain, sabi ko, ay okay lang naman pala. Pero masunurin ako sa kanya. Lahat ng sabihin niya, labs and medications I do religiously.
Me: Did you have any health scares?
Dr. P: Yung hypo (hypoglycemia), pero I can feel it coming. Intense hunger. Since I feel it coming, naka-counteract ko. I have my Snickers bar in my backpack in case I have hypos. One time, I was just standing, then I just found myself on the floor. Ang wife ko din nagagalit pag kumakain ako ng mali, she also checks to make sure that I am taking every medication.
Me: At least you don’t let the disease worry you unnecessarily to the point that it stops you from doing your work too.
Dr. P: I don’t. As I always say, you start dying the moment you were born. All of this parte ng buhay ng tao. Live your life, don’t let it stop you. I let my doctors worry about it kasi wala naman ako alam sa disease. Sabi ko sa doctor ko, I know anthropology, you know medicine, I will leave the care of my diabetes to the expert!
Me: At your age, most would want to take it easy. What keeps you going?
Dr. P: Sa age namin mas mahirap ang walang ginagawa. Just because you have grown old, doesn’t mean you are of no use anymore. In fact the experience you gain with all those years make you all the more useful to society!
Me: All those awards…did you ever have a favorite?
Dr. P: There was a time when all those awards were in the bathroom for lack of space. To me, awards just serve to mark a time in your life. Eventually, it will only be you who remembers!

The conversations eventually wind down, and after promises to keep in touch were exchanged, it was time to say goodbye to Dr. Peralta and his family.

Dr. Jesus T. Peralta… I mull over the person…this savant of the arts, as we walk back to our car. His proficiency at using Grab to hail his daily ride and knowledge of how to do core muscle exercises monitored by a smart watch makes you second guess his age…can you guess? He was born in 1932, making him eighty-five years old – an age when most struggle to even understand how to send an SMS message and are so frail that they need assistance with daily living.

I commit to memory his family, his home, and the positive legacy that he continues to create for our society – all amidst the background of a chronic disease that has cut short many productive lives.

He is a picture of a man who lived fully through the decades – took something from each of those decades and brought them along for a ride in the 21st century, where he confidently belongs to now.

An afternoon with Dr. Peralta and his wife makes one realize that the fountain of youth is not a mythical magic potion. It is the way we choose to live the life we have – the courage with which we face challenges, the active participation in managing our health, and the resolve with which we pursue and expand our passions.


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Brought to you by the Philippine College of Endocrinology Diabetes and Metabolism (PCEDM)
IG: @endocsociety
Twitter: @EndoSoc_ph

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What is PCEDM?

The PCEDM is a sub-specialty society of the Philippine College of Physicians, a founding member of the ASEAN Federation of Endocrine Societies, and a member of the International Society of Endocrinology.

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