> People and Places > Dr. Fe Del Mundo: Grand Dame of Philippine Pediatrics

Dr. Fe Del Mundo: Grand Dame of Philippine Pediatrics

She is the epitome of non ceasing passion, unwavering commitment, unequalled service and unparalleled patriotism. At almost 97, Dr. Fe del Mundo remains the ever-dedicated pediatrician and selfless humanitarian that she has been in the past decades.

And while most of her students had already retired from practice and her first pediatric patients have become grandparents themselves, Dr. del Mundo still sees patients in her hospital and continues to champion causes and advocacies for the welfare of Filipino women and children.

Living a simple life void of almost every material and worldly possession, Dr. del Mundo set out to fulfill her mission of ensuring optimum care for all the children in our land. And as she embarked on a lifetime journey of medical service, Dr. del Mundo had likewise amassed knowledge and wisdom she so willingly shared; received high praises and accolades from colleagues and friends who believe in her vision; and bequeathed legacies that the next generations will speak of and always remember.

Many articles and biographies written on the life of Dr. del Mundo always consisted of the many ‘firsts’ that she has become or has achieved.

She first saw light on the 27th of November 1911 in Manila. Born to statesman Atty. Bernardo del Mundo and Paz Villanueva, she was sixth of eight children. The interest to take up medicine first sparked in Dr. del Mundo’s mind from a note written by her sister Elisa, then 10 years old, who died of a disease. According to her sister’s writing, Elisa wanted to take up medicine. And so, from then on, Dr. del Mundo was bent on making her sister’s dream come true.

A graduate of Associate in Arts from the University of the Philippines (UP) by 17, the young Fe del Mundo pursued a medical degree from the same institution and in 1933, graduated first in a class of 70. In the same year, she received her first award as the Most Outstanding Scholar in Medicine by the Colegio Medico Farmaceutico Filipinas.

Her desire to get involved in the care of children was first felt during her internship service in Marinduque where her uncle, at that time, was the municipal health officer. With the alarming death rate of children in the area, Dr. del Mundo soon realized that pediatrics is where she’s needed and where she could serve best.

Consequently, as Dr. del Mundo received a Presidential grant from then President Manuel Quezon of the Commonwealth government, she took further studies and underwent a post-graduate training in pediatrics. “A grant given to me by President Manuel L. Quezon enabled me to study and train in pediatrics for five years at Harvard Medical School, Boston’s Children’s Hospital Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Master in Bacteriology), and other institutions in the United States,” recalls Dr. del Mundo. It was at this time that she had made one of her most remarkable firsts—the first Filipina and first woman student at the Harvard Medical School from 1935 to 1940.

And as Dr. del Mundo had achieved the many firsts in her life, she likewise introduced the Filipino women and physicians to the world. An internationally-acclaimed icon of pediatrics and medicine, Dr. del Mundo is the first Filipino diplomate of the American Board of Pediatrics in 1947 and the first Asian president of the Medical Women’s International Association from 1962 to 1966. In 1967, Dr. del Mundo became an Emeritus Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Not only did she conquer pediatrics and medicine in the global scale, she also became the pillar of child healthcare practice in the country. Dr. del Mundo is a founding member of the Philippine Pediatric Society and also its first lady president, serving for three terms from 1952 to 1955. She also founded and became the first president of the Philippine Medical Women’s Association and the president of the Philippine Medical Association in 1972—the first woman in its then 65-year history.

More than pediatrics
There is no doubt that Dr. del Mundo is one of the greatest people who have ever walked this country, or perhaps, this world. Even the slightest disbelief in her stature as a physician, educator, researcher, scientist, heroine, and humanitarian may in itself be considered treachery to the very causes that she has always stood for—the welfare of children, women, the Filipino people, and mankind.

With her many firsts that have conferred Dr. del Mundo with community and civic work that focused on the care of children and their mothers in the underserved and underprivileged areas of the country. A physician by profession and a humanitarian by dedication, Dr. del Mundo’s work and legacy served as foundation to many more civic efforts by the government and private sectors.

Upon acquiring higher education and fellowship, Dr. del Mundo was offered to stay and work in the United States (US). But when World War II broke out, Dr. del Mundo decided to return to the Philippines. She said, “With no regrets, I returned to my native land despite poverty, hardships, deprivation and disasters of various kinds. I am most grateful, happy and appreciative of the graces from the Almighty, for love of country, and compassion for people, particularly our underserved children.”

She adds that her first opportunity to serve in the country was when Japanese authorities permitted her to take care of American and British children from the University of Sto.Tomas interment camp in 1942. From this point, she continued with her community involvement as she opened the Children’s Home in a small Red Cross building. With more and more children coming in, along with expectant, recuperating, and nursing mothers, Dr. del Mundo and Red Cross made necessary arrangements to house the children in The Sisters of the Holy Ghost College (now Holy Spirit).

During the Manila liberation in 1945, Children’s Hospital was converted by US military authorities into an emergency hospital to aid the sick and injured civilians of the war. By the end of the year, it was known as the Philippine Civil Affairs Unit. Later on, still under the stewardship of Dr. del Mundo, it became the North General Hospital, which is now known as the Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital.

“Several years later, I set up my ‘Little Clinic’ at my home at Kitanlad Street in Quezon City,” recalls Dr. del Mundo. And as parents from the northern to the southern parts of the country flocked to her for their child’s diagnosis and treatment, she knew that she will need more space than just her home.”In 1957, I sold my home and embarked on my dream to set up the Children’s Medical Center at Banawe, Quezon City,” she shares. From this point on, Dr. del Mundo never got to buy another house of her own and instead decided to
live in the hospital she built.

In just after a year of building her own hospital, Dr. del Mundo extended her reach as she trained and sent Rehydration Teams to work with rural health units in several provinces to treat diarrhea and other debilitating diseases. Come 1965, these teams were reinforced with highly-trained and qualified pediatricians to provide focus on children’s diseases. This strengthened Dr. del Mundo’s vision of building a medical center that will focus not only on curative but also on preventive medicine, research, and medical service delivery especially in the rural areas.

As a result, the Institute of Maternal and Child Health (IMCH) was inaugurated in May 11, 1966, under the same Board of Trustees who, at that time, ran the Children’s Medical Center.”I established the IMCH to train doctors, nurses, and paramedical personnel and bring them to underserved families in various parts of our country including Mangyans in Mindoro and Hukbalahap (communists) families in Mt. Arayat,” says Dr. del Mundo.

The IMCH, supported by the United States Agency for International Development through the National Economic Council (later called NEDA), was divided into three units: Maternal and Child Health, Rural Extension, and The National Training Center for Maternal and Child Health.

The Rural Extension program paved the way for pediatric teams of residents and hospital staff to serve in the far-flung communities of the acrchipelago-stretching from Cagayan up north, to Jolo, Sulu down south. Often accompanied by Dr. del Mundo, the teams continuously traveled and stayed in the countryside despite the hazards that they faced. Dr. del Mundo and the teams disregarded difficulties and gave lectures and demonstrations on modern methods of treatment, infant feeding and nutrition information, regular weighing of children under five years old, periodic examinations of water supply, and immunization campaigns against polio and tetanus.

With the perseverance and hard work of Dr. del Mundo and the pediatric teams, child morbidity and mortality in the country was said to be significantly reduced. In 1973, with the ever-changing trend in medicine especially in the thrusts of maternal and child health, Dr. del Mundo further broadened the scope of IMCH through the Institute of Community and Family Health (ICFH).”The ICFH was founded to focus on preventive, in addition to curative aspects of medicine, and to train families in our rural areas,” says Dr. del Mundo. The ICFH also included care of the adolescents and outreachprograms in doctor-less and underserved communities of Bulacan and Pampanga.

Dr. del Mundo’s hard work, perseverance, and humanitarian works did not stop in the 1970s. In 1989, with the help of a private citizen, she established her third community satellite in Liliw, Laguna which provides free medical services, conducts health seminars, and trains mothers and child health workers. In 1994, to increase the efforts on the improvement of health and well being of communities, Dr. del Mundo, with a group of enthusiastic and action-oriented physicians, organized the Community Pediatric Society of the Philippines.

She also established the TB Center for Children in 1996. Now on its 12th year, the center continues to offer medical and dental services, laboratories, X-ray and ECG facilities for the indigent patients and children in the community. In 2007, Dr. del Mundo shifted the primary health care thrust from rural areas to urban poor communities and centered on health education among school children and young adults.

The woman beyond the accolades
Dr. del Mundo has always emphasized the need for pediatricians and their involvement in community health and empowerment. She always believed that pediatricians must be able to translate their knowledge into medical care that is understood and well-accepted by the patients in the communities.

In the eyes of her previous students, Dr. del Mundo wasn’t just another teacher, nor was she just another person that they’ve come to know. “As a mentor, she was selfless. Every opportunity was a teaching experience for her. She would demand the best from us because she would give her best. She would unselfishly share what she knows,”says Dr. Thaddeus Evangelista. He adds that as a person, Dr. del Mundo is verythoughtful. “As a friend, on a personal level, she is awesome!”

The non-ceasing efforts that she has put and exemplified accorded her with the highest honors ever to be received by a Filipino physician, more so for a Filipina. “I realized Dr. del Mundo is an ordinary woman with extraordinary way of accomplishing things. Her devotion to her work led to numerous recognitions I believe she never intended to have,” says Dr. Ma. Cristina Gutierrez.

In 1968, one of the internees, Albert Holland, who helped secure the permission for the children at the interment camp to be brought to the Children’s Home, also helped secure that Dr. del Mundo’s efforts were not left unrecognized. And so, with Holland’s nomination, Dr. del Mundo was bestowed with the Elizabeth Blackwell Award as a Woman Doctor of the World Renown. Accorded to her in 1966, this award is given by the Hobart and William Smith Colleges to “a woman whose life exemplifies outstanding service to humanity.

In 1977, Dr. del Mundo received the Ramon Magsaysay Award—Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize—for Public Service by a Private Citizen in recognition of “her lifelong dedication as a physician extraordinary to needy Filipino children.” In her response during the awarding, Dr. del Mundo said, “It is a very rewarding task to contribute to the building of a world of happy and healthy children of whom the Divine Physician bespoke his concern and affection: Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Two years after, Dr. del Mundo was conferred the title of Academician and in 1980, National Scientist, both by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). These two titles were given to her in recognition of her dedication to the cause of pediatrics in the country. According to the NAST citation,”She did not confine herself only to research in different aspects of pediatrics but she also trained physicians, paramedics and lay health workers in child care. She also went to the extent of doing extension services to remote rural areas in the Philippines and became the moving spirit behind the establishment of various pediatric institutions in the country.”

Dr. Gutierrez adds, “The legacy that she started is passed on to every pediatrician who was trained and continually being trained under her. It took her a humble heart and a clear vision of a simple goal—to take care of the Filipino children. These made her who she has become right now. I am glad I am not only given a day to spend with her but the pride of bringing on her legacy as I simply share her simple yet noble goal.”

Truly, Dr. del Mundo must be one of the most decorated physicians in the country. Every visitor in the memorabilia room of the Dr. Fe del Mundo Medical Center Foundation Philippines Inc. (the former Children’s Medical Center named after her) will be awed at the multitude of awards and merits she has received in her lifetime of service.

Another of her students, Dr. Philip Chua, wrote in Sunday Times Magazine, “I can say without any fear of contradiction that Dr. Fe del Mundo, to date, is the world’s greatest pediatrician, whose 70-year active career is still going strong and whose record obviously can be broken only by herself.” He added that while most of them who have been her students have now retired from practice, “Dr. del Mundo is, like what the Duracell TV commercial says/still going and going and going and going…”

In the latest curriculum vitae of Dr. del Mundo, graciously shared by her niece and Chairman of the Board Elisa del Mundo-Bengzon, 67 honors, awards, and citations received are listed. However, compared to the actual number of plaques, certificates, and medals adorning the memorabilia room, this may be a conservative listing.

Covering almost every corner and every wall of the room, these awards and merits pay tribute to her efforts as an educator and administrator, having been a professor and chair of one-too-many medical schools and institutions; as a scientist, having invented a low-cost native incubator and jaundice-relieving device for rural communities; and as a researcher and journalist, having published 150 scientific articles, written the column “Baby and You” for 20 years, and as the editor-in-chief of the “Textbook of Pediatrics and Child Health.”

Dr. del Mundo counts these contributions as the defining moments in her life and career. During the awarding of her most recent accolade as the 21st Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Awardee, her niece shared that her dear aunt’s humble response was, “Thank you. I do not deserve the award but I will try to be worthy of it.”It is just amazing how a woman who has done so much still thinks of herself unworthy of awards and praises. “It was enough for me that I was able to make the correct diagnosis on difficult cases and to administer the treatment which brought relief and mitigated the sufferings of the patients and their parents,” shares Dr. del Mundo.

Dr. del Mundo received yet another award. Bengzon shares that Dr. del Mundo will be accorded with the HMA (Hospital Management Asia) Award for Lifetime Achievement. According to the HMA fact sheet, the award is “for an outstanding health care professional in Asia…who has done the most for making patients feel better or get better.” In addition, the awardee should have, for a very long time, been “generally known to put patient’s rights ahead of everything else, or is known for his generosity in treating the poor and has consistently done this all his life. He or she can also be someone who has devoted his life to areas working with the poor, or devoted to working with drug rehabilitation, or has a distinguished career in the health care, civil service, etc.”

All these criteria point to how Dr. del Mundo has lived her life. By dedicating her life to the causes of maternal and child health, Dr. Fe del Mundo had not only relieved and alleviated the sufferings of her patients but likewise spread across a fire of burning passion for patriotism and selfless service among the medical students, hospital staff, and community service leaders who trained under her and believed in her advocacies.

Married to her profession and the ‘mother’ of tens of thousands of children whom she cared for in her more than 70 years of medical service, Dr. del Mundo never regretted the day when she decided to become a doctor and decided to attend to the welfare of children. “I am glad that I have been very much involved in the care of children. They are the most outstanding feature in my life.”

By Geralyn A. Rigor

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