LAST Friday (January 6, 2017), I watched the concluding episode of GMA-7’s Someone to Watch Over Me with a heavy heart. I had expected it to be a heart-breaker, but it still left a lump in my throat that just would not go away throughout the whole episode. Tom Rodriguez displayed awesome acting (or non-acting) in his character as TJ, the husband who was afflicted with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease and was slowly (no, make that quickly) deteriorating, and I expect him to win an acting award soon for his portrayal of Teodoro Jose “TJ” Chavez. Only a few actors of his generation would be able to successfully deliver restrained acting like he did, making hearts twitch with great emotion without saying a word and instead letting only his eyes do all the talking for him. Tom Rodriguez was excellent.
But it was Lovi Poe’s character Joanna as the loving and dedicated wife of TJ who completely broke my heart, and I cried with her from beginning to end. I could not help but relate with her. Those who know me know why. For those who don’t, I would like to open my heart to you and share my story, my own version of Someone to Watch Over Me. You see, I have been “watching over” my own husband for the past seven months. Unlike TJ, however, whose Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease was irreversible and whose condition therefore kept getting worse with time until he could no longer recognize anyone or show any emotion, my husband Raff’s condition as a stroke patient is improving every day. He is well on his way to full recovery. His memory is intact, his speech clear and coherent (except for moments when he is so excited when he speaks that his syllables overlap), his thinking as sharp as ever. Only his body is coping with his condition, and he is slowly but surely regaining control over his senses. With the right side of his brain affected by the stroke, it was the left part of his body that he lost control of. But with proper medication, care, food and nutritional supplements, physical therapy and occupational therapy, positive attitude and will to overcome his condition and get back to his normal self, Raff has regained control over his left leg. His left arm, which his PT said would be the last to get back to its normal function, has started to move according to his mind’s command. It’s a big improvement, and it makes me happy.
Sometimes, when I look at him sleeping on his bed peacefully, knowing that I am just beside him as he sleeps and that mine will be the first face that he sees when he wakes up, I still cannot fathom how it could have happened to him of all people. He eats healthy, he has no vices, he is a jolly and fun-loving person. The only culprit I could think of is stress. Stress over traffic, for he is always at the steering wheel when we go out, most often to attend events that I would write about and he would take photos of. Traffic had been really bad in the last few months before his stroke, and he always complained of tired legs when we got home.
But then, it happened so suddenly. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it would ever happen. Raff suffered a stroke in the afternoon of May 31, 2016. Being in the media, specializing in food and travel, we had covered two food events in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, that day and since Tuesday was our number coding day, we were whiling our time away at SM Aura until 7:00 p.m. so we could comfortably drive home. We had a healthy breakfast, and our lunch was quite healthy, too. We sat around the fast-food area that late afternoon, then walked around the mall at a leisurely pace. We went inside a camera shop, and Raff even took a look at a camera that he had been planning to buy, then we left the shop and walked towards a lifestyle store, where I wanted to check out cookware. And then, suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, it happened. Raff stopped walking. He just stood there. I looked at him and asked why he stopped, and he just stared at me. Calmly. His backpack, which served as his camera bag, fell to his left side. It did not fall to the floor because his left hand was in his pocket. I was alarmed when there was still no expression on his face.
“Raff, ano’ng nangyayari sa ‘yo? OK ka ba?” (Raff, what’s happening to you? Are you OK?) I asked him, panic already making my voice quiver.
Then he struggled to say, with a very evident slur, “O-OK a-ko.”
I screamed, “Hindi ka OK, Raff! Guard, patulong!” as my hands automatically reached for his backpack and hastily put it on my own back. Then I reached for him and held him tight, just in case his legs should wobble and he would lose balance.
The lady guard rushed to my side and made calls for assistance as I asked for Raff to be brought to the clinic. We made him sit on a chair, and that’s when his legs began to wobble, but he was conscious. Additional assistance came, we put him on a wheelchair, and he was brought down to the clinic. Once there, I asked the nurse, “Stroke ba?” as she quickly checked his blood pressure and other vitals and asked him basic questions like what his full name was, how old he was, where he lived, and my heart cracked into pieces when he struggled to pronounce his name properly. But his answers were accurate. “Ma’am, dalhin na po natin sa ER. OK po ba sa inyo kung sa St. Luke’s?” the nurse asked, trying to hide her own panic. Of course I said yes, for, although St. Luke’s was undeniably very expensive, it was the closest to SM Aura and therefore the best option for emergency medical assistance. I struggled to call my sister Mary for help. Suddenly, I did not seem to know how to operate my phone. I could not go through this alone. I had never faced a similar situation, especially one involving Raff, and I needed my sister and my brother-in-law Nick badly. Mary’s phone was not ringing, so I called Nick instead. Fortunately, he answered, and when I explained to him what happened, he said he’d just pick up my sister from her office and head for St. Luke’s BGC.
Once at the hospital, the Stroke Team went to work right away, running a series of tests that ended with MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), after which the neurologist on the team showed me the result of the MRI on a computer screen and explained Raff’s condition to me. It was not a mild stroke. Otherwise, it would take just one injection (albeit seriously expensive) to reverse it. In his case, they could not administer the drug because it might do more harm than good and trigger hemorrhage in his brain. He had to be confined in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) for at least a week for observation and management by medicine. If his stroke let up, that’s the time they could administer the drug. Twice should be enough but it really depended on his reaction. If the stroke grew “larger” and his brains swelled, then he might have to undergo cranial surgery.
I heard her. I was listening intently. But I could not seem to comprehend in the beginning because I could not believe it was happening in the first place. And with panic and fear gnawing at my senses—worrying so much about Raff and yet also thinking about the expenses it would incur, especially at St. Luke’s—it just did not want to sink in that it was real. And I told the doctor, straight, that I wanted the best for Raff but I could not afford St. Luke’s rates. Could I transfer him to another hospital? The doctor thought for a while, then said, “Yes, you can have him transferred, but you have to do it now, so they can start proper medication right away.”
I called Raff’s sister Lanie to let his side of the family know what happened to Raff, and I called their cousin, Blessie Piñon, a nurse with the Department of Health (DOH) and could possibly help me transfer Raff to East Avenue Medical Center. She was in a conference at that time, and our mobile phone connection was choppy, but I kept at it until she was able to contact Dr. Reinerio Prieto, who was with East Avenue’s internal medicine department, and arrangements were made. Mary and Nick came, along with our eldest sister Susan, and they helped facilitate the transfer. It took forever for the ambulance to arrive, and I was so worried about Raff, who was conscious all the time and was keeping his—and our—spirits high although I could see that he was feeling bad. He calmly lay in bed, his eyes closed, in the Emergency Room (ER), but it wasn’t like him. He was usually jolly and noisy. To see him quiet like this, there really was something wrong.
The ambulance finally arrived, and though our trip was fast, I had wanted things to go faster because I knew Raff needed help. I was totally alarmed when I saw the number of people waiting for their turn at the ER of East Avenue, but luckily, arrangements had been made prior to our arrival, so that the requirements for admittance were quickly met. The nurse made Raff swallow a tube for his NGT when he choked upon taking a medicine orally. It went inside his nose, down his throat and straight to his stomach. He twitched with pain, and I had to look away. The nurse inserted a catheter and, again, he twitched with pain. I looked away again.
It was 3:00 a.m., June 1, when he was finally wheeled in to the ICU of East Avenue Medical Center on the fifth floor, and I was led to the Watchers’ Room next door. Everyone—all the companions of ICU patients there—was already sleeping when I entered the room, so I took the only free spot available, on the floor near the door. My sisters and brother-in-law, and Raff’s niece Marivic and her husband Ferdie (who met up with us at East Avenue), had to leave—with a heavy heart. I bid them good-bye and told them I was OK. But I was not. I put my things down on the floor. I only had my bag with me and a few toiletries that my sisters brought for me (I had asked them to bring home Raff’s camera bag), anyway. I lay down quietly, faced the wall, and cried quietly in the stillness of the night. At that moment, I felt like I was stripped of all my creature comforts. But I did not care. All that mattered to me was Raff. What was happening? Why? Would he be alright? If this was but a dream, a nightmare, I wanted to wake up from it. I never felt so alone. Raff and I had always been together, like two peas in a pod. We never separated. And, now, he was in the ICU with fellow patients and I was in another room with strangers. I was so afraid. My tears flowed, and in between gasps for breath and sobs I tried to control, I whispered a prayer, “Lord, please heal Raff. Please make him well. Oh, God, please.”
I did not know how I survived the next day. Calls by the ICU nurses awakened me at 5:00 a.m. I was given a list of medicines and toiletries that I needed to buy for Raff for the day. I went inside the ICU to check on Raff although it was not yet visiting hours. He had his eyes closed, but when I called his name, he opened his eyes and smiled when he saw me. He was responsive, but he still was not his usual self. Then I went out to buy the stuff on the list, walking from the hospital to the pharmacies on the side street and straight to Mercury Drug along V. Luna. Walking from the hospital to V. Luna became my routine every morning. It became my act of penance for Raff’s healing.
The next day, Raff became unresponsive. He was asleep all the time and did not respond even if I talked to him. At one point, I thought I saw tears on the side of his eyes, and it scared me. I went to talk to Dr. Prieto and suggested that we consult a neurologist because he might have a suggestion on what other course of action to take. He said yes and, by early evening, Dr. Rejuso was at Raff’s bedside. He ordered a CT Scan, but even before it was done, he already said that Raff needed cranial surgery that night and that Dr. Prieto should already choose a neuro surgeon to do the procedure. Dr. Prieto chose Dr. Annabelle Alcarde, her assistant gave me a list of stuff to buy for the procedure, my sister Mary and brother-in-law Nick rushed from one drugstore to another to complete the items on the list, came back to the hospital by midnight, and, at about 1:00 a.m. of June 3, I met Dr. Alcarde at the Operating Room on the ground floor right before the procedure and entrusted Raff to her able hands. I went up to the Watchers’ Room, quietly took my place and prayed myself to sleep. By 5:00 a.m., an ICU nurse was calling out “Zulueta!” and I scampered up. The procedure was done, I was told, and Dr. Alcarde wanted to talk to me at the OR. I rushed down five flights of steps. “The operation went well. His brains were really swollen, so now that we have removed part of his skull, there is space. He will soon be brought back up to the ICU, and let us just pray and hope for the best,” the doctor told me.
But why was I not comforted by her words?
The next 17 days were the worst days of my life, as I waited for Raff to wake up. It was traumatic just looking at him lying there, with a respirator in his mouth, NGT tube in his nose, wires on his chest connected to a heart monitor, dextrose tube on his hand, the right side of his head bandaged and with a drain, and his face all swollen from the operation. He was to develop a cough later on, and when the ICU nurses suctioned him orally to release the phlegm that he could not cough out on his own, his body jerked so violently that I could not stand looking at him. I would go out or stand in a corner, my back towards him, until it was done. He would also develop an on-and-off fever, for which I bought ice cubes every morning and late afternoon for his ice pack to keep it in check. Raff was that weak, and he had never been that way for all our 28 years of knowing each other.
Every day, I prayed to God that he would wake up. I spent long hours in the ICU, just standing beside Raff on his bed and talking to him. Morning, noon, afternoon, evening. I would tell him about what’s happening in the world, about which friend of ours came to the hospital to visit him, about how much I love him… Sometimes, I would just beg him to wake up. His doctors never gave me any encouraging words, probably because they did not want to give me false hope. After doing their rounds and checking on Raff in the ICU, each of them would stop by the Watchers’ Room and tell me, “Wala pa akong magandang balitang dala para sa ‘yo” (I have no good news yet to bring you) or “Gaya pa rin ng dati. Let’s just keep praying” (He’s still the same.)
Even when Raff started opening his eyes but just staring at the ceiling for fleeting moments and even when Raff’s right hand started twitching when the doctor pinched his pinky on the left hand quite hard, the doctors told me, “May improvement dahil nagre-respond na siya. Pero hindi natin alam. Baka mag-improve pa, baka mag-deteriorate sa susunod, o baka hanggang ganun na lang.”
My answer was consistent all the time: “Gigising siya, Doc. Maniwala ka sa akin.” (He will wake up, Doc. Believe me.)
Every day, I would go to the Chapel and bargain with God. I cried my heart out as I talked to Him. I asked God to heal Raff, make him wake up and nurse him back to perfect health. Never mind if He stripped me of everything, just give Raff back to me. I could not imagine life without him. I had asked friends to be my and Raff’s prayer warriors, and I knew that so many people were storming the heavens with prayers for Raff. It was impossible for God not to hear us. I hung on. I kept the faith. It was the only thing I was clinging on to.
In the Watchers’ Room, I often sat quietly in a corner and stared into space. I felt numb. I was so afraid of losing Raff. Especially since I was warned by a friend that if ever he did wake up, he might have forgotten certain periods in his life and he might not remember me. If that happened, it would hurt so bad I did not know if I could ever recover from it.
Those 17 days were the worst days of my life, and yet they were also the time in my life when I realized how blessed Raff and I were with friends who truly cared. They came every day to show love and support for the two of us. They texted messages of support. They called. They sent food and offered all kinds of assistance. And I drew strength from them. I also drew strength from my Watchers’ Room family, with whom I bonded so tightly. After all, we lived in one room for about a month. We slept side by side each night. We used the same common toilet and shower room. We ate together. We walked to the drugstore together every morning. Tatay Jun Gojar would assure me, “Magigising ‘yun, ‘wag kang mag-alala.” (He’ll wake up, don’t worry) whenever he saw me staring into space at the Watchers’ Room. Buboy would buy ice cubes for me in the afternoon to keep Raff’s fever down. Ashley would keep me entertained with his antics despite worrying over his own sister’s heart condition. Every morning, we would respond to the ICU nurses’ roll call for the lists of medicines to buy for the day: “Gojar! Manuel! Gloria! Bacarisas! Rampola! Bedua! Zulueta!” Each of us had a story to tell. We shared those experiences, learned from each other, and kept each other sane.
When Raff finally woke up on June 20, I leapt with joy and screamed as I shared the good news with family and friends. Personally with my ICU Watchers’ Room family, who cried with me as I cried and laughed and leapt. Through text messages with family and close friends, some of whom kept the rest updated on Raff’s condition on social media through Facebook. A friend, Maan D’Asis Pamaran, who posted updates on FB whenever I texted a development, told me Viber went wild with reactions from friends to the latest and best piece of news ever about Raff.
Yes, it was the best news indeed. Raff was God’s best gift to me. God finally granted me the miracle I was praying so fervently for—and with a bonus. Raff’s memory remained intact. The first question I asked him when he opened his eyes and focused on me for the first time was “Do you see me?” and he said yes. The second question, which could have caused me great heartache but which brought me the most sublime joy ever, was “Do you know who I am?” And he said yes again. I held him tight and cried and cried and cried, this time for joy. Nothing could have gotten my spirits down that day.
When the doctors dropped by the Watchers’ Room to see me that day, I had the sweetest smile on my face for them. This time, they smiled back. “Bilib ako sa ‘yo. Ang lakas ng panalangin mo. Akala ko talaga, malabo,” Dr. Prieto told me, smiling this time, and his words more than summed up what each of the doctors told me. (I admire you. Your prayers are so powerful. I really thought he wasn’t going to make it.) My answer was a happy “Sabi ko sa ‘yo, Doc, magigising si Raff eh. Malakas ako kay God. Direct line.” (I told you, Doc, Raff will wake up. I have a direct line to God.) And they would smile. No more violent reaction. They probably used to think I was just in denial. But, no, I truly believed with all my heart that God would give Raff back to me. I vowed to proclaim His miracle to the world, and here I am starting with this piece.
Life did not instantly become a bed of roses after Raff woke up from his deep sleep. Nursing him back to health requires a lot of hard work, patience, perseverance and, well, yes, money, too. It can be challenging in many different ways. Like Joanna in Someone to Watch Over Me, I have been hands-on with Raff’s care since the start, and I cannot imagine leaving his care to someone else. Even during difficult moments—especially during the first few months of his recovery, when he was still so weak and fragile. Despite sometimes sleepless nights after I was finally able to bring him home. Raff made it all worth it with his happy and positive disposition and sweetness. Yes, there are moments when he feels depressed and thinks it is taking him such a long time to get back to his normal self. But most of the time, he is jolly and good-humored. Like Joanna in the concluding episode of the soap opera, in the scene where TJ smiled and said “I love you” while watching fireworks on New Year’s Eve and Joanna said something like “Masaya na akong ganito. Sapat na sa akin ang ganito,” I could feel her. Just seeing Raff’s eyes light up when I enter the room, just seeing him smile sweetly at me, reach for my hand with his good right hand and kiss it, then tell me “I love you sobra!” is enough for me. There are even moments when he would tell me, “Salamat sa pag-aalaga sa akin” (Thank you for taking care of me) and hug me, and I would feel so overwhelmingly touched that I would cry.
There was a flashback of Joanna and TJ’s wedding vows, “For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health…” and it hit me in the heart again like a knock-out punch from Manny Pacquiao because it was what I would always remind Raff of whenever he would thank me for taking care of him. It was a sacred vow I made to him before God and men, and I am determined to keep it.
In many ways, I saw myself in Joanna. So when her family and her friends advised her to bring TJ to an institution whose caregivers were professionally trained to respond to TJ’s attacks and give him the best care possible and then she said “Maaaring mas alam nila kung ano ang dapat gawin, pero kaya ba nilang ibigay kay TJ ang pag-aalaga na may pagmamahal?” I cheered her on.
I got caregivers for Raff—to help me respond to his needs at night and to lift him up when he needs to sit up and stand and do all those physical routines that his physical therapist (PT) Benjie Maddara makes him do, but I am still there assisting and supervising and doing the most sensitive tasks for my husband, whom I love with all my heart and soul and life. And when he personally says he wants me to prepare his Ensure or feed him or massage his left arm so its pain and tightness would go away, I do it. No questions asked. I leave my computer and make it my priority. And my computer is right beside Raff’s bed and so I sit beside him when I work, so when he falls asleep or wakes up, I am there.
When Joanna finally decided, albeit against her true will, to heed her family and friends’ advice and, after escorting TJ to his new room, cried nonstop and did not want to leave, I felt for her. “Pupuntahan pa rin kita araw-araw. Tutulong pa rin ako sa pagpapalit ng diapers mo…” she promised TJ between violent sobs. And then, when she walked away but her feet led her back to TJ and, like a bolt of lightning, quickly sat him up on his wheelchair and wheeled him away, saying she was bringing TJ back home with her, I cried in agreement.
I knew that Someone to Watch Over Me would not have a happy ending. TJ would not suddenly get well and he and Joanna would not live happily ever after, because it would become a fairy tale if the director and the writer chose to go towards that direction. In a condition like TJ’s, which is Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, there is no happy ending, but Joanna and TJ found their happy ending anyway in their togetherness until the end, in their ability to prove to everyone that they could survive the worst situation as long as they’re together.
Thank God there is a happy ending in my and Raff’s version of Someone to Watch Over Me. Raff is recovering nicely and getting better every day. We continue to work on his condition with his PT and his Occupational Therapist (OT). He bikes using the ergometer that his Singapore-based nephew Mark Aries de Guzman brought him. That is several times a day, and it strengthens his legs and whole body. He has regained control over his left leg and he can now stand with minor support. His PT makes him walk with a cane now. His left arm now moves, although Raff has yet to regain full control over it. But we will get there. No doubt about it. Raff works hard at it.
Most of all, the two of us bond beautifully every day, and the best thing that came out of this experience is a deeper, more sublime love for each other. Raff says it best when he tells me, “Lalo tayong pinaglapit ng nangyari. Mas lalo nating minahal ang isa’t isa.” (We became closer because of what happened. We love each other even more now.)
Yes, may forever. And for friends who believe in #RaffDoll, we shall see you again soon.
Thank you for being a part of our lives and for letting me share with you my own version of Someone to Watch Over Me. To God be the glory!