MANILA, MAY 10, 2008
(STAR) SUNDRY STROKES By Rosalinda L. Orosa - To the Good Book’s query “Who has seen a valiant woman?” my reply is “I have — in my mother Severina Luna Orosa.” She utterly detested taking up medicine, but did so in obedience to her father who pitied Filipino women suffering from gynecological disorders, yet refusing to consult male doctors.

In baro’t saya, she walked the long route from Wilson Hall on Taft to the UP College of Medicine on P. Faura, and when it rained, she would arrive drenched to the skin, her baro’t saya clinging to her as she carried her heavy books and her umbrella which served no purpose.

Today, medical students dissect a cadaver together; Severina had a cadaver all to herself! The sight horrified her yet she valiantly carried on.

The daunting medical course had originally 32 enrollees but only 16 finished it, the rest having given up or fallen along the way. Severina graduated valedictorian (Class 1914); Sixto Y. Orosa, whom she later married, was salutatorian. Severina must have inherited her genes from her grandfather, Benedicto de Luna, whom Rizal describes in the first chapter of the Noli as el habil argumentador (the skilled logician). He earned three doctorates from the UST where he was the only Filipino member of the jury examining candidates for doctoral degrees.

Because of their academic honors, Sixto and Severina were given the privilege of choosing their post. The Supreme idealists opted for Jolo, Sulu, where they could introduce Western scientific practices, there being only doctols (herbolarios) in that region.

From Manila, it took a whole week by boat to reach Jolo — air flights were non-existent then — and upon arrival, the couple learned that a Christian had just been beheaded by a juramentado (a Muslim gone amuck) in the public market. What a welcome!

The newly weds might as well have migrated to a foreign country: Muslim customs, traditions and religion were totally alien, making them feel isolated. Bewildered.

Further, owing to the pitched battles raging between the American military and the Filipino Christian soldiers under its wing, no Muslims went to the Sulu Public Hospital of which Sixto, Christian, was director and chief surgeon, with Severina, also a Christian, as his assistant.

For weeks, the couple arranged and re-arranged beds, medicine cabinets, equipment, etc. in the empty hospital. Suddenly, Hadji Butu, a highly educated senator and the most influential Muslim next to the Sultan, fell ill. Her called for Sixto who immediately diagnosed the case, his wife confirming the diagnosis.

Hadji Butu considered his recovery spectacular. “Go to the hospital of the Orosas!” he strongly admonished his fellow Muslims. Quickly, they rushed to the hospital in droves, the two doctors inching their way along the corridors now filled with extra beds and cots. Thus was effected a drastic change in Christian-Muslim relations.

Ever the faithful assistant, Severina would walk beside Sixto as they traversed miles of dirt roads to visit the sick in hovels, huts, shacks and shanties, or ride on vintas to reach the Samals who lived out at sea. (Today, no doctor will make a house call).

Severina, furthermore, was hospital factotum: obstetrician, pediatrician, bacteriologist, laboratory technician and later, even as assistant surgeon.

As her medical duties increased, so did her house chores. Muslim domestics stayed with their employers only until four in the afternoon. In any case, so conscientious was Severina that from the hospital about 600 yards away, she would hurry back to the house to bathe and feed the children — four of the five (Sixto, Leonor, Helen and Jose) were born in Jolo — wash the diapers and cook, the retainers being familiar only with their own dishes. Kitchen work was supremely ironic because Severina, whose father belonged to Batangas’ landed gentry, was not allowed to lift a finger in the parental home. Yet, after marriage, Severina became a remarkable cook, often playing hostess to VIPs with no hotels to stay in.

Obviously, her life involved a precise budgeting of time as she shuttled from home to hospital. Also, there was no escaping great anxiety when Sixto’s overnight inspection trips to outlying regions left Severina alone with the children, the servants having gone home. Chilling cries of “Juramentado! Juramentado!” would rent the air and the “amuck” could force his way in! Cowering in fear, Severina lay huddled with the little ones until the danger was over.

The daily grind, punishment enough, was aggravated by Severina being in constant pain. Why was this so? As she expected her first-born, she was in labor for a whole week. The Caesarean method was then unknown, and the high forceps delivery shattered her sciatic nerves, causing temporary paralysis and amnesia. Thereafter, friends failed to notice Severina’s slight limp. Nevertheless, Sixto’s helpmate did not carry on as a disabled person because Gov. Gen. Leonard Wood rated the Sulu Public Hospital “the best administered and the most successful”.

Incredibly enough, Severina managed to write for the Philippine Herald so regularly, editor Modesto Farolan dubbed her “The first Filipino woman columnist”. Upon the request of a colleague in Zamboanga, she wrote a one-act play “Almost within Grasp”, though her only theatrical background was appearing in high school as Lady Macbeth and as Maria Clara in Rizal’s “Idyll in an Azotea”.

Next stop was Manila where the youngest child (the author) was born. Sixto, as chief, Division of Hospitals, lobbied for the Provincial Hospital Act which led to the construction of 17 hospitals throughout the archipelago.

Third stop was Bacolod where Sixto served as provincial hospital chief and principal surgeon; Severina, as head of the Bacolod Maternity and Children’s Hospital. Too far away to benefit from her land holdings, she augmented her husband’s P300 monthly salary by opening an all-Philippine dry goods store. “If we don’t patronize our own, who will?” she often asked.

Manila was the final stop. Recalling the Japanese Occupation, all Severina’s children would have described her then as granite and steel. After the war, she organized the Kababaihang Rizalista as female counterpart of the Knights of Rizal. Those present at the first meeting at her residence insisted that she be its president, but her delicadeza led her to decline the offer. (The woman who became president refused to step down after her tenure ended.)

Later, even after Severina had been elected president of several organizations, she continued to write, coming out with a book entitled “Rizal’s Challenge and Appeal”. Forthwith, she translated her essays and her play into Spanish, a language in which she had no formal training. For her effort, she garnered the coveted Premio Zobel in 1983 at age 93, her response leading Bea Zobel to remark to the author: “Que bonito el acento de tu Mama!” Severina went to her eternal rest at 94, her brilliant mind lucid to the very end. She met her Maker without funfare, having willed that whatever could be spent for the dead should be spent for the living.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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