Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Dr. Willie Ong – does the name ring a bell?
In an article which was published in Philippine Daily Inquirer some years back, regular columnist Dr. Rafael R. Castillo wrote: “(Makabayang Duktor) shows the doctor-couple roaming the slums of Metro Manila looking for people with healthcare needs they can help. They do their medical examination and evaluation right there and then, make a diagnosis and give the necessary medicines which they usually have with them. If the sick patients need further diagnostic tests, they make the necessary referral and, in most cases, they spend for these laboratory examinations.”
Dr. Castillo further wrote: “Willie and Liza have been digging deep into their own pockets sustaining ‘Makabayang Duktor,’ the TV show and Makabayang Duktor, the foundation. Seeing all the poor patients that the foundation has helped, kind-hearted Samaritans have made donations and Willie and Liza have come up with a scheme similar to that of Gawad Kalinga.”
Today, you can read his regular column in some newspapers. He also appears on television, talking about medical problems, treatments, and issues. From 2009 to 2017, he was a resident doctor and host on “Docs on Call,” a DZRH public service program.
For all that he has done, Dr. Ong received several citations and recognition from various award-giving bodies. The Philippine College of Physicians bestowed him a Presidential Award twice: in 2003 and 2005. The same body gave him the Distinguished Fellow Award in 2004.
In 2006, the Manila Times recognized him with the Dr. Jose Rizal Award for Excellence in Medicine. The following year, the Department of Health and JC International Senate conferred him the Outstanding Filipino Physician Award.
In 2008, the National Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Foundation gave him the Ulirang Ama Award. In 2009, the Excellence Award, the highest award given by the Philippine Federation of Professional Associations, was bestowed on him.
Dr. Ong has come a long, long way since he was a little boy dreaming of helping the needy. “Since I was six, I realized that my mission is to help the poor,” he recalls. “I was mesmerized by the story of a Christian boy named Kree. He helped his friends, especially the poor, but sadly he died at a very young age. Listening to the story, I thought it was a tragedy. But I was wrong. Kree was welcomed by Jesus with open arms and is now living in heaven. I can’t get his story out of my mind. At a young age, I thought this became the best thing anyone can hope to achieve.”
Then, something bad happened when he was a teenager. At age 17, he stopped going to church. This was when “my world crashed.” He admits now: “A very personal problem led to a falling out with my parents, my family and relatives – practically everyone. I felt it was not really my fault but I was blamed for what I did and I felt the anger, exasperation of everyone I loved.”
In 1998, he managed to graduate from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. But despite this, he was still considered a bum by his parents. “I was really hurting inside as the people I loved turned their backs on me, not accepting me for what I am,” he says.
Because his grades were not good enough for UP, he went to De La Salle University College of Medicine in Cavite. “My first year went alright, but in my second year, I crashed again. I spent Christmas and New Year’s Day alone in student homes because I had nowhere to go. I was trapped. I couldn’t go to anyone. And sadly, no one came to see me. I walked the trees at midnight alone.”
During his clerkships at DLSU, he found his saving grace from the patients. “I saw this frail old lady sitting quietly in the charity wards, accepting what fate has given her. I thought of her plight and I felt I was not alone anymore. I needed her as much as she needed me. The poor patients became my counselors and companions,” he says.
When he was doing his internship at San Juan De Dios Hospital in 1992, he met the woman of his life: Anna Liza Ramoso, who became his wife. “Meeting and marrying my wife was surely God’s will,” he says. “She was my classmate in second-year medicine at DLSU. But being terribly shy, it would have been impossible for us to get together. I never talked to her then.
He courted her (“I was her first and only boyfriend”) and exactly one year after they first met, the two quietly married on October 24, 1993.
During the last election, he ran for the Senate. He failed to do so, but a lot of his supporters said they would vote for him this coming election. But to the surprise of many, he won’t be running for senator but as vice president (of Isko Moreno).
In a letter addressed to his friends dated September 19, he explained why he agreed to run as vice president.
“First, I apologize if you are shocked by my decision. I also had a hard time believing at first. For those who know me, my only goal in life is to help as many people as I can. When I was 17, our high school teacher asked us what our goal was in 25 years. I wrote that I wanted to help thousands of people, maybe even a million if I get lucky. So I became a doctor, an internist, and a cardiologist. But I was not happy locked in a clinic seeing only a handful of patients while many poor Filipinos suffer. I knew there were more lives I could save.
“For 28 years now, my wife Dra Liza and I have been doing charity work. And through Facebook and YouTube, we have been giving free medical advice online. In my charity work, we visited the slum areas, and this changed me. The poor’s makeshift houses are hot, oppressive, with prevailing hopelessness. With this heartache, I saw many ways we can improve the health sector in our country. And I saw the need for a doctor in government.
“That is why I ran in 2019 for the Senate with little money or backing. Despite being labeled as a nuisance by some, I just bore the humiliation and continued on. My goal is to help the poor and sick, no matter what it takes.
After faring well but losing in 2019 (he ranked #18 despite a budget of only Php 581,000), Dr. Ong went back to charity work as if nothing had happened. “There were more lives to save. No complaints, no regrets,” he said.
“So in these past three years, we have helped as much as we can in private. I was 99% sure that I would not run, because I grew tired of politics. Fast forward to August 2021, I was all set to push through with more charity work, online teaching, and giving inspiration in a private capacity. Seeing COVID ravage our land, seeing depressed viber posts, my faith wavered because I could not see any light at the end of the tunnel.
“At the same time, I was also focused on my Mom who had a stroke two months back and was admitted in the hospital for severe pneumonia. I could still hear her say, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ and we could not do anything.”
Then, out of the blue, Dr. Ong got a call from Lito Banayo, saying Mayor Isko wanted him for his Senate slate. He said he was tired. He has said ‘no’ probably ten times already to a different kind and well-meaning politicians. And he was sure he would say “no” to him.
“When I met Mayor Isko,” he said, “I was brutally honest as always. I laid all my cards explaining why I am declining his kind offer. I don’t want a troubled life. I have done my part. I have sacrificed as much as I can. But Mayor Isko was persistent. More than 2 hours passed, and I was the one to ask for a time out.
“I said I was helping a lot already. Isko said it was not enough. I said I wanted to show the public that despite good survey ratings, I refused to run. Isko blurted it was my pride talking. I said I only wanted to help the poor outside, pointing at the Mayor’s window. And this is where Isko animatedly stood up and said, “Okay, if this is what you want, to help the poor. If you join my ticket, I will put you in the Senate Committee of Health, and I, as President, will back you up 100%.” Still, I begged off. He’s still a politician, right?
As they parted, Isko told him, “Even if you don’t join my ticket, I will still seek your help if I become President.”
“I was disturbed in the next few days,” Dr. Ong recalled. “Isko said he works so well with a doctor by his side like the vice mayor and doctor Honey Lacuna. That is why he bought Remdesivir and Tocilizumab. Isko showed me the new hospitals he built. The free CT-Scans, portable X-rays, and dialysis centers.
Two days before his mom passed, Banayo called him again, that was September 9. He said that Isko had changed his mind after talking to him. Isko now wanted him to be his Vice President. And since COVID will be here till 2024 and more pandemics may be coming, Isko wanted Dr. Ong by his side to tide the country through the pandemic.
“Is he serious?” Dr. Ong wondered. “I had zero ratings as VP. I could hear the bashers typing. I had sleepless nights, tumbling and troubled. My mom was near the end already. And on the day she passed, I had decided. There will be no political negotiations, no requests on my part should I accept this.
“As my mom was to be buried, Lito called again. And he was trying to convince me again with statistics and numbers. I said, let’s not talk about numbers because I have decided already. Lito paused uncomfortably.
“Yes, I agree to be Isko’s Vice President. But I will do it my way. I will not bash anyone. I will not follow any script. I am ready to sacrifice… Use me as you will….”
“And this is where I broke down crying. In a haze, I could hear Lito’s voice cracking too.
I said, ‘Our country needs hope and healing. Millions of lives are waiting. Let’s do this.’ So what made me join Isko and trust him? He was the one who gave me the green light to help manage our country’s health problems. Together, he said we will help millions like what I dreamed of. He has done it in Manila with a doctor as his partner.
“But even with all these, I am not naïve. Some people change when they win. But my gut feeling and my fervent prayer is that God protects him and protects our people. If Isko wins, I have promised to devote the next six years to doing what I can inside his government.
“I am afraid, but I will try my best. There will be ups and downs with COVID, for sure. But all decisions will be borne from a pure heart and a pure love for our people.
“A few months back, I thought God has forgotten our country. With Isko, I cling to the hope that God has a plan for us. He will wipe away every tear. And there will be tears of happiness in the future.”
Just for a record!