‘How are you?’ A health question

Written by Danielle Uayan

The immersion in Northern Samar was a load of ‘firsts’. It was my first time in the Eastern Visayas. It was my first time doing an immersion of any sort. It was my first time chewing on Buyo leaves, a popular local medicinal plant, freshly plucked from its stem. It was my first time talking to health workers in settings that were not a hospital or a clinic. As a person who is predisposed to saying ‘yes’ to anything that would allow me to experience new things—sometimes even without any forethought—it suited me greatly. There was just one thing I felt I should have prepared myself greatly for: the variety in the answers that came from the locals whenever I asked: Kumusta po kayo? (How are you?)

As a first-year medical student, I was used to people responding to my question with quick descriptions of any physical illness they felt. My family and friends in particular would say: ‘My lymph nodes are swollen. Would you mind taking a look?’ or ‘My nose feels stuffy. I think I’m coming down with something’. My classmates would usually answer that they were very busy with lectures, tests and other course requirements. A couple would simply answer: ‘I’m doing fine’ and leave it at that. In Northern Samar, a few of them still answered like that. But loads of times, whenever I started a conversation, their responses were incredibly long, like the dam holding back a torrent of words suddenly broke. Despite the language barrier, they were able to communicate with me about their daily routines, their goals in life, the things that make them happy, the problems they faced and the challenges they would continue facing. They told me which places to go to if I wanted to get the best view of the sunset. One lady proudly told me that her school-age nephews were given scholarships by a foreign benefactor. I was not wholly prepared by the onslaught of information.

One reply was particularly striking to me: ‘Hello, I’m doing well. Would you like to come inside our home’”

Even when I was doing a somewhat similar research during my undergraduate days, I do not remember ever getting that kind of answer to my question. As simple as the response was, it carried a whole slew of implications—inviting a complete stranger in such a private space would mean discovering intimate details that I might not be well-equipped to handle. It is almost unthinkable in the city. It was daunting, but I had to give it a shot.

I went inside. And I was glad I did.


A well is the most common source of water for the people of Laoang

I learned that the lady and her husband had three children, and that they lived with her  mother, her sister-in-law, brother-in-law and their sick child. The baby had flu and was only a few months old; they gave her Tempra® (Paracetamol) for the fever. I learned that, whenever a person gets sick in the family, the grandmother would be the one deciding when and where to get treatment, as she was the oldest in the household. The mother or the grandmother were mostly the ones deciding whether an ailment could be considered ‘serious’ enough to require medical attention. The men in the household were the ones who worked; they would be the one paying for the medicine and treatment, if needed.

‘How often do you see a health professional?’ I asked the sister-in-law. ‘Not much,’ she responded. ‘If we could avoid it, we would.’ She then cited the lack of time and money as the primary reasons why. If it was just a cold or hypertension, they would not seek treatment. ‘You consider having a high blood pressure as something that is not serious?”’ I asked. ‘Not really. It’s so common,’ she replied. ‘Isn’t it something that you get as you grow older?’

Until now, I am still amazed at how a simple ‘How are you?’ led to a very meaningful conversation on the psychosocial elements of health, among other things.


Locals posing for a picture with SOLACE ambassadors Harriet Howells and Frances Gibson

I am extremely grateful and humbled to have gained such a wealth of insight from the people of Northern Samar. It was remarkable that they were able to share such details without a trace of hesitation. I would like to believe that I gave off a rather friendly vibe, but perhaps it was more of them thinking of me as someone whom they could share their stories with without the fear of outstanding repercussions, as I was more or less a fleeting character in their lives.

I would have liked it to be more than just this brief encounter to them. Armed with this new perspective they gave me, I will truly try my best to make the most out of my medical training and I hope that I would be able to give back to them, even if indirectly. It would probably take a few years, but I hope that I would be able to touch their lives as much as they had mine.