A Celebration of Tomorrows: The Legacy of Dr. Fe Del Mundo

Written by Ness Ignacio
Illustration by Cedric David Cortez
Published 28 February 2022

Around her, they wept. 

Another day, another funeral cortege. Their wails of grieving filled her ears. Diseases and injuries tore through their city, taking child after child through each waking day. One moment, Elisa, her older sister, writes in a notebook that she wanted to be a doctor to help them. The next, she is gone— having joined the rest of the children who lost their lives too early. The young Fe Del Mundo decided that something must be done; there must be a tomorrow where they would be saved. [1] 


It started with a promise and ended with a legacy. Today, a little over a decade after Dr. Fe Del Mundo’s death, we illuminate and narrate a promise that saved the children— our now engineers, our artists, our healthcare workers. Throughout her long life of service, Dr. Fe Del Mundo revolutionized the state of pediatrics in the Philippines, fulfilling her promise of giving the children the tomorrows they deserved. 

Where were their tomorrows amidst the poor condition of healthcare in the rural areas? The harsh reality of these hospital conditions during her clinical rotations in medical school further intensified her need to change something. [1] After graduating as class valedictorian in 1933 from the UP College of Medicine, the late President Manuel Quezon himself agreed to cover all expenses wherever she went in the United States. From 1936 to 1941, she expanded her pediatric care training across Harvard Medical School, Boston University, and John Hopkins University, treating a multitude of different conditions. [2] She was one of the first female graduate students at these prestigious universities, which only added to her brilliant mind and accomplishments at such a young age. [3] Despite her budding career there though, she made the decision to come home and apply what she learned towards treating her own people.  With a multitude of learnings on her belt, she returned to the Philippines to practice medicine. 


Upon returning home, the Japanese invasion plunged the country into chaos. Around her, the streets drowned in blood— sweeping innocent babies and children along its tides towards death or to internment camps. Dr. Del Mundo joined the International Red Cross, looking after child detainees stationed in the University of Sto. Tomas by setting up makeshift hospices. More than that, she believed these children deserved more than being deprived of their childhood. She managed to convince a Japanese officer to move these children to a better home away from the internment camps, promising their parents they would see them every week. She would sometimes take them through strolls through the Malacañang area, hoping to somewhat alleviate their stress. [4] Children, to her, were the wealth of the nation, and it was important to give them hope for the future, especially during the traumatic mess of war. 

Post-World War II, Manila stood on rubble and ruin. Dr. Del Mundo spent long hours treating the wounded and the sick at the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center (formerly North General Hospital) serving as its director until 1948. As the country slowly began rebuilding itself, she ventured into the academe in hopes of imparting her knowledge to the youth. More than the technical lectures, she wanted them to see the poor status of healthcare for children in far-flung areas and how crudely they were being cared for. [4]

Over the next few years, Dr. Del Mundo worked tirelessly to progress the state of pediatrics in the country, setting up the Children’s Medical Center in 1957 and an extension training facility: the Institute of Maternal and Child Health in 1965. This was to further the instruction of child care to cater to the greater population unable to reach adequate healthcare. She selflessly laid out much of her own life savings and assets all for its construction, even so much as moving into a small second-floor living space inside that medical center. Here, she figured it was easier to make rounds and continued to treat the children even as she turned 90— slowly withering with age. [5]

Along with her daily rounds and checkups, Dr. Del Mundo also wrote and published more than 100 scientific articles detailing her research on common pediatric diseases such as polio, dengue, and measles. An advocate for better healthcare in rural communities, she also devised a low-cost, bamboo incubator for premature babies and babies suffering from jaundice. The device consisted of two native bamboo baskets placed inside of each other, encircled by hot bottles of water. This saved hundreds of babies in these rural communities who did not have access to facilities in the city. To cap it off, she authored the first and only medical textbook written by a Filipino author which was entitled “Textbook of Pediatrics and Child Health”, allowing the future generation of pediatricians to benefit from her insights. [5]

Around her, the world celebrated her extraordinary work. In 1966, she was awarded the Elizabeth Blackwell Award for her various contributions in the field of medicine. In 1976, she was honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Outstanding Public Service. In 1980, she was the first woman to be awarded the National Scientist Award in the Philippines for her pediatric work. [6] 

Up until the day of her death, Dr. Fe Del Mundo was surrounded by beating heartbeats and the smiles of recovered children and their parents: the winding halls of the legacies she built up in her lifelong years of sacrifice and service. Today, when we celebrate her life, we celebrate a promise— a single spark that left monumental change to the world around her. It started as a promise and bloomed into a legacy. Today, we celebrate her by building more tomorrows. 

References

  1. Lim F. Dr. Fe Del Mundo: Frail but feisty still at 95 [Internet]. GMA News Online. 2007 [cited 2022Feb20]. Available from:
    https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/specialreports/58031/pcij-dr-fe-del-mundo-frail-but-feisty-still-at-95/story/ 
  2. The Light & Legacy of Fe Del Mundo. Philippines: Asian Eye; 2007. 
  3. Official Biography of Dr. Fe Del Mundo from the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation [Internet]. Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines. 2015 [cited 2022Feb20]. Available from: https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/banner-artwork/fe-del-mundo/ 
  4. Andaya DS, Navarro, Mariechel J. MJ. In: National scientists of the Philippines, 1978-1998. Pasig City, Philippines: Dept. of Science and Technology, National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines; 2000. p. 131–40. 
  5. Kutzsche S. The humanitarian legacy of Fe del Mundo (1911–2011) who shaped the modern child healthcare system in the Philippines. Acta Paediatrica. 2019; 
  6. NAST National Scientist [Internet]. National Academy of Science and Technology. [cited 2022Feb25]. Available from: https://members.nast.ph/index.php/list-of-national-scientist/details/3/14

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