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Our househelp poisoned me

By MEL PANABI Published Feb 10, 2021 11:07 am Updated Feb 11, 2021 12:29 am

We’ve all read horror stories of house help committing acts of crime against their employers. But I never imagined it would happen to us. We’re not rich, and we treat our kasambahays well. But on Oct. 10, 2020 that reality was brought home—our house help poisoned me, just to steal enough spare change to buy a pack of cigarettes or a hit of a drug.

Desperate to get a kasambahay

We have always had trouble finding reliable household help. One of them left for the province for a vacation, and then never came back even if we advanced money (twice!) for her travel fare. The last one slept most of the afternoon and complained if we asked her to walk to the convenience store within our subdivision.  

When she left, my wife Dedet was desperate for a replacement help. I work in Pasig and my hours are packed. Dedet works full-time at home. We have two seniors living with us (my mother and my mother-in-law), and two kids.

We didn’t want to go through an agency and get someone “we didn’t know.” But personal referrals are hard to get, and not as reliable as they seem. The corner sari-sari store owner recommended a neighbor’s household help, who recommended her sister-in-law. While it wasn’t a perfect scenario, there was some assurance that she was somehow… related.

After recovering from the poisoning. “The liquid sosa burned my esophagus. Sections were completely black—like charred inihaw.”
Working out before the nightmare began. 

In the interview over the phone, Tess claimed she worked in Manila before, and knew how to do household chores including cooking. Since she was vouched for and the interview went well, my wife decided to get her.

Locked down

Tess arrived at the tail-end of February, a few weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown was declared. From the very first few weeks it was apparent she oversold her skills. She didn’t know how to cook, barely knew all other chores, and could only remember to do something after you reminded her.

And she smoked. A lot. Something she failed to tell us.

But because of the lockdown, we couldn’t let her go. Dedet and I felt sorry for her and her kids, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to go back home to her province.

Even when she openly refused to wear a mask outdoors and would sneak out of the house despite warnings of the barangay restrictions, all we could do was think, “Just for a few more months.” It wouldn’t be humane to kick her out of the house until the travel ban had been lifted, and she could safely go home.

Drawing the line

The thing is, she kept making advances. From the very first week, she would ask for P500 to P1,000—not to send back home, but to buy cigarettes, or whatever she wanted from the neighborhood store.

We offered her plenty of food—my family and I never scrimp on our household help’s meals, and they eat what we eat—but she claimed she wanted her own coffee, noodles, or junk food.

One very evil person did a random act of violence, but hundreds of very good people showered us with random acts of kindness. They are the reason my family and I have not been consumed by anger or resentment.

In retrospect, she wasn’t buying food—but I’ll get to that later.

By September, she already owed us more than P15,000 in advances. This didn’t even include money we gave her as assistance, when she told us her son was bitten by a dog and needed to have rabies shots. Dedet was willing to shoulder that as part of her “health benefits” as our household help.

Because of the financial burdens brought about by the pandemic, which affected my ability to earn, I told Dedet to say she couldn’t make any more cash advances, especially if it was for personal whims like snacks or cigarettes. (Dedet deals with the kasambahay directly, as I try to not get involved as a way of deferring to her as the lady of the house.)

This was the morning of Oct.10. She did not take the news well, to say the least. From what Dedet recalls, she was visibly upset and kept asking for the cash.

The incident

Around mid-afternoon, Dedet and I went out to run some errands. We got back home around 5 p.m. I immediately went upstairs to our room and turned my PC on.

Right beside my desk is a metal water bottle, which I always have with me since I always drink water. I opened it and took a small gulp. The first thing that I noticed was that the water was hot. I thought someone replaced it accidentally with hot water, or that since it was a hot day, by some weird physics, the water temperature had risen, too.

Then my throat started burning. The pain just kept on escalating. I rushed to the bathroom—immediately realizing that someone had put poison in my water bottle. I was vomiting thick globs of bloody mucus. The agony was unbearable.

Dedet tried to call Grab to bring me to the hospital, but none were available, so she desperately called our friend Haydee for help. She drove all the way from their house to fetch us and brought us to the hospital.

After performing lab tests, the doctors told us that I ingested a highly alkaline solution—more corrosive than bleach, and definitely more concentrated and toxic than any accidental traces left from washing the bottle with soap.

The most logical conclusion based on the PH level of the chemical: liquid sosa was poured into my water bottle.

The after effects

I stayed in the ICU for four days and spent a total of 10 days in the hospital. I was lucky that I didn’t stay longer, lucky that I even survived. I had the presence of mind to spit out most of the liquid, but even that tiny sip left significant damage.

I went home with a naso-gastric feeding tube, which stayed for almost two months. The first days at home, I couldn’t even tolerate pepper— it felt like I was eating hot chili peppers. I lived off Jello and clear broth and had to pour a nutrient milk into the tube three times a day so I would be nourished.

We’ve now decided to file charges against her, especially when her husband had the gall to text my wife and say he would ‘bring the case to media’ if we did anything to his wife. We want to seek justice and prevent her from doing the same thing to other employers.

The tube is gone now but I can only eat semi-solids or liquid food. It takes me two hours to finish a meal, because I have to cut even small pieces of meat into very tiny portions and chew several times so I won’t choke. I can take overcooked noodles, and not even all kinds. For example, I have learned that I can’t take macaroni, but I can eat misua. We are constantly experimenting to find which dishes I can tolerate.

I get nervous every time I eat: will I choke, will I be able to keep it down? If I make a mistake, I will start to cough and throw up, and may not even be able to eat the rest of the day. I have always been a foodie who likes to try different kinds of cuisines, so it pains me to know that I may never be able to try some of the dishes on my Bucket List.

Reclaiming my life, one inch at a time

The liquid sosa burned my esophagus. In the initial endoscopy, taken a day after the incident, sections of my esophagus were completely black—like charred inihaw.

Luckily, my esophagus was able to heal. However, part of the body’s healing response is inflammation or swelling.

That’s the challenge I face now. My esophagus tends to swell and get stuck together—what the doctors call strictures. When this happens, food can’t pass through. I need periodic dilations, where a tube is pushed into the esophagus, to break through any parts that have stuck together. Right now, I have dilations about once every three weeks, with the goal of widening the esophagus a little more each time to lengthen the time between dilations.

Patience, hope and perseverance

In my last dilation, the doctor was pleased that we were able to dilate the esophagus to about two cm, half the size of the normal esophagus and about the diameter of a pencil. However, the esophagus continues to shrink, and when I start coughing up mucus or have difficulty swallowing even milk or broth, I return to the hospital for another treatment.

It’s a vicious, expensive cycle.

My doctor said that going through dilation alone will mean that I may have to do this monthly for at least one year. They’ve recommended surgery to replace my esophagus with a part of my colon. But I’ve told him that it’s an option I don’t want to take because of the significant downtime, and the exorbitant cost. We just have to fight this battle month by month.

I’ve lost almost 20 kilos and it has affected my quality of life—maybe permanently. We’re in a tight financial bind right now. My health is compromised, which has affected my productivity. But despite all of these challenges and problems though, there are still some things I’m thankful for.

One day at a time. Photo taken in December 2020, two months after the poisoning, when the author still had his nasogastric tube.

I’m glad she did this to me instead of poisoning Dedet, my kids or our two seniors. Better me than them.

My quality of life may be affected but I’m still alive. One of my doctors told me I’m one of the few patients he’s had who has not exhibited major complications from alkaline solution ingestion.

This medical ordeal has brought about an outpouring of love, prayers and help from our family, friends, or even people who we weren’t that close to, but were moved to reach out. It was an overwhelming display of affection and concern that has touched our hearts so deeply.

One very evil person did a random act of violence, but hundreds of very good people showered us with random acts of kindness. They are the reason my family and I have not been consumed by anger or resentment over what happened to us. That household help could poison my water, but we would not allow her to poison our lives.

Lessons in hindsight

So where is our kasambahay? She disappeared a few days after the incident. Dedet was with me the first 48 hours, and while she had strong suspicions—especially after speaking to our toxicologist—that it was a deliberate act of poisoning, she couldn’t leave the hospital and she was afraid that the household help would harm our family while we were away.

She discreetly waited for the lab report on the water in my bottle, then went to the barangay to ask for a restraining order and someone to escort the household help away from our house.

At that point, we were not considering criminal charges: our main concern was to make sure that she would not be in the same house as our kids and elderly mothers.

Two days after the incident, she returned to the village escorted by barangay officials who rode in their barangay van. However, by the time she reached the gate, the guards told her that the household help had tried to get out but was stopped because she was carrying a bag without a permit to leave.

From what we later pieced together, she had told my mother she was going to buy cigarettes. She left the house without holding anything, so she had probably prepared an escape bag and hidden it elsewhere in the village. Since she was unable to walk outside, she may have asked help from someone in the area to help smuggle her out of the village.

As a warning to anyone who reads this: observe anyone you invite into your home. If you feel uneasy, listen to your instincts. Your family’s safety always comes first.

The funny thing is, while I was in the ICU, Dedet and I were discussing what to do with her. We came to the conclusion that we would just let her go back home and would even give her transportation money.

We were both too emotionally and physically drained to consider dragging through this a court case. We were also very worried about the psychological effect on our kids—my son, just 16 years old, was left as man of the house, and had taken to sleeping with a golf club so he could defend his sister and lolas from any intruders.

Both of us just wanted it to be over.

This was way before we found out the extent of the damage and the long-term effects of my injuries. We’ve now decided to file charges against her, especially when her husband had the gall to text my wife and say he would “bring the case to media” if we did anything to his wife. We want to seek justice and we want to prevent her from doing the same thing to other employers.

Spot the hidden signs

All of these troubles just because we told her she can’t get any more money. While this is all speculation, since there is no way to prove it without a drug test, there were signs that she was not just smoking cigarettes.

She would sit in the kitchen late at night, staring out into space. She had no appetite for food, and would sneak out and disappear for hours—we would only notice she was gone when we would look for her in the afternoon when it was time to make dinner. She had erratic mood swings, from being very “out of it” to being very jumpy, energetic and unable to sleep. But we were only able to piece together these details in hindsight, when the kids and I sat down to talk about what happened.

We will never know what she was doing, why she needed money so desperately she was willing to poison me for it, or if she is capable of doing it again. But as a warning to anyone who reads this, so it doesn’t happen to you, observe anyone you invite into your home. If you feel uneasy, listen to your instincts. Your family’s safety always comes first.