(This is a tribute piece by Dr. Lindo for Dr. Jose “Ting” Tiongco, known as the father of health cooperatives, chief executive of the Medical Mission Group Hospitals and Health Services Cooperative-Philippines, who died in Taguig on May 16 at age 75.)
Ting is Dr. Jose Tiongco. Surgeon- extraordinaire. He was our teacher in medical school. I remember his first ever class with us that swept the female population off their feet. He was young, good-looking, an Edu Manzano look-alike, whose command in English was impeccable (oh, his German, too. I would learn later from two German medical interns who had a brief exposure with us at the Davao Medical Center, now Southern Philippines Medical Center). I thought he was irreverent, and this distinguished him from other consultants. He could be strict during our grand rounds, bombarding us with questions he knew we could not answer. I would call him Mentor/Tormentor. But, he was a completely different person outside the halls of the hospital, especially in Ward 21, which was a karaoke bar in Maguindanao Hotel. We sort of hero worshipped him.
He became our friend because he was active in HEAL Mindanao, a network of health professionals, and community health workers advocating for social justice in health. We had our own students organization then, the ALAMAPA or Alagad sa Maayong Panglawas. This was against a backdrop of Martial Law in the 70s down to the 80s. There was a dynamic movement within the health sector, each contributing to the much-needed change in the health care delivery system.
We were united in the analysis that health is a basic human right. We also unite on the analysis that the health problems are a reflection of the social, cultural, political and economic structures of the society… what we call the SDH or social determinants of health.
One event organized by Dr Tiongco had an impact on me. That was the Conference on Law and Medicine, which brought the law and medicine practitioners together. The discussion was both conflictual and dialogic at the same time. He brought together legal luminaries like Justice JBL Reyes, Atty Haydee Yorac (who later became the first female COMELEC chair), and even Gen. Brawner to discuss the security issues confronting the physicians and lawyers when they attended to human rights defenders, rebels, and other elements considered enemies by the government. I was a medical student then. I think that event was also a landmark for health sector organizing.
Dr. Ting, together with the doctors around him, formed the Medical Mission Group. They started in a smaller building in Obrero. His group made efforts to make it bigger. He was like a role model for a number of years. He would have wanted us to be ‘under his clutches.’
Prior to our residency, we envisioned an alternative residency training program that would help us hone our clinical skills and still keep us grounded in community work. We would find out that Davao City was not a fertile ground for that concept yet. The following year, our counterparts in Manila successfully found support in various institutions. This group of self-propelling medical graduates had a similar concept. I facilitated a meeting for this group with Ting. There was one word from him that hit us hard -“masturbatory” – but the group proved otherwise. Anyway, the program of this group took off, and they populated the community-based health programs and DOH (Department of Health) positions all over the Philippines and the World Health Organization. This established him as our frenemy.
We went to the traditional residency training program in the various hospitals in Davao City. Once we graduated residency, we regrouped with the intention to form a new entity. We attempted to form a cooperative health facility in partnership with the workers and even had the late Nonoy Librado, a prominent labor leader and city councilor, in the conceptualization phase. It was not even a hospital we thought of establishing. Dr Ting filed a temporary restraining order against the group, and we got Atty Larry Ilagan, a prominent human rights lawyer, to defend us. Outside the court, the key people of MMG persuaded us to join them. Of course, we prevailed in that case. But like Ting, we were also a bunch of irreverent doctors. We abandoned the cooperative concept and helped UCCP re-open then Brokenshire Memorial Hospital, also known as Brokenshire Integrated Health Ministries, Inc. We developed service packages and other mechanisms for accessible health care. I think it was a blessing in disguise because we already had the building.
For us belonging to the younger generation (then), we also wanted to do something original, pioneering, with us at the helm in order to have better control of ourselves. Another factor was that we did not have money to start with MMG. Almost all hospitals then required goodwill money along with credentials.
We went on with our parallel lives, but our communication line with him was open. He was always provocative with us. He always had a punchline. It could be about anything… like, introducing a random woman-companion as his wife, what not. And I could only see the woman cringe with a surprised face. There was even one time I joined his birthday party. We share the same birthday, not the year, of course. That was almost 20 years ago, the three of us, Regi Canda, his co-worker at HEAL-Mindanao, and Sr Celine of CBHS whom he had a conflict with (an intellectual one), hatched this idea of surprising him. There was no bad blood or any form of awkwardness detected. But he introduced me to his mother as a doctor, plus the label ‘communist.’ For the record, I am politically eclectic. In that sense. I consider him beautifully flawed.
One time, I met him randomly at Brokenshire Hospital. He told me, ‘ I feel terribly sorry for you. You have become the person you never wanted to be when you were younger.’ So I asked him. What the F do you mean? I work as a doctor, I still have my political life, and I live life on my own terms. Why feel sorry for people who are not sorry for themselves?’ And then he said ‘ Oh yes, just like all the pigs in the slaughterhouse. They don’t feel sorry for themselves. They probably deserve to be slaughtered.’ So I replied, ‘Show me your slaughterhouse, Dr Tiongco.’ Then he replied, ‘Okay, I can give you a 30-minute presentation.’
In New York, 20 years ago, Dr Mahesh Mansukhani saw Ting persuading UP doctors to invest in MMG. Mahesh was amazed how much his batch-mates admired him even as they thought he was a rebel.
The airport was always the random place we chance upon each other. The last encounter I had with him, it was my turn to make a proposal. I introduced the concept of social franchising of pharmaceutical products for his MMG network. Social franchising is a model whereby the products or services are made more accessible to low income communities. It is for more socially beneficial ends above profits. He asked at once if we had the economies of scale, and I told him we had a partner for that. He had no immediate answer to that proposal. Maybe because it was another masturbatory concept for him, but he did not verbalize that.
MMG was his life. Health cooperativism was his life. I believe that given a fertile environment, it could create more dent. I could only wish that we had cooperatives whose members also got better lives as the institution grew bigger. In other words, one that integrated genuine social development in its programs. I have seen cooperatives that grew bigger, with leaders fighting over billions of assets, and the majority of the members still suffice with access to loan services, mortuary, and, probably no more.
Ting was larger than life. He was something. If you notice, we call him on a first name basis, that is because the NGO culture created equalizing opportunity. We had the permission to do so.
Ting, thank you for the friendship. It was really nice having you as a mentor-tormentor, frenemy, colleague, kuya, and a leader with vision. My clenched fist salute to you.davao city