What happens when someone who wants to save lives suddenly finds out he needs to save himself first?
Gian Placino, 26, was an intern at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) when he suddenly felt a mass in his clavicle. That was in January of this extraordinary year, 2020.
“I didn’t really have any other symptoms besides that,” recalls Gian, who recently passed the medical board exams. The mass was tested for malignancy, and when the results of the biopsy were released, Gian’s mother Aly took the results to him in school.
“I remember I was still on duty in PGH that day when my mom surprised me in the intern’s call room with the biopsy result. She showed me the result and asked me what it meant. I said ‘I have cancer.’”
There was no other way to cushion the shock. From child to mother.
“It was a day full of tears,” recalls Doc Gian.
It was heartbreaking for Aly, for mothers are wired to protect their children (she and husband Freddie have four: Dino, Mara, Gian and Selene) from big bad wolves and bad news, not the other way around.
“As a mother you could only encourage, you could only hold his hand, you could do nothing to take the pain and discomfort away,” Aly says, recalling her own pain. “It was very difficult for me as a mother to see how sad he had become because when we found out about the cancer it was six months short of finishing his internship. I saw how hard he worked, studying up to the wee hours of the morning, doing many, many hours of duty without sleep. It broke my heart to see him sad. And then there was the physical pain and the other side effects that came with the chemotherapy.”
But Gian has always been a tough and disciplined warrior, and he and his family have always worn the armor of faith.
“Quitting was never an option for me,” says Gian. “I’ve come so far and I needed to finish this. I think this ‘go-getter’ mindset stemmed from my early days as an athlete. I was part of the tennis team in my high school and my coaches embedded in me this attitude that I was to never, ever give up. Even if the odds are stacked against you, you really shouldn’t give up.”
Inspired by his late grandfather, Dr. Benigno M. Sulit Jr., an anesthesiologist, Gian has always wanted to become a doctor.
“I was always exposed to my Lolo. I was really inspired by how he was very knowledgeable. And I belong to a family of doctors. Thus, ever since I was young, I always wanted to be one. When my Lolo passed away, there was this one patient who stood in front of his casket crying and saying the words ‘Maraming, maraming salamat po sa lahat ng ginawa n’yo para sa amin.’ I couldn’t help but cry, too, witnessing this.”
His mother Aly, who became my friend during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2019 led by Catholic Travel’s Father Dave Concepcion, witnessed her son’s determination to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“He was one who knew what he wanted and didn’t stop at it. He always belonged to the honors class; he was very focused,” Aly says proudly.
Gian had everything going for him — the genes, the inspiration, the focus. But a mass in his clavicle changed the rules of the game — just before the win.
Gian had to cut short his internship. Being immunocompromised because of his cancer, he could not be exposed to patients who may potentially make him sicker. He was asked to file a leave, though was assured that once he was fit to return, he would be allowed to continue his training. That meant potentially having to wait out a whole year to do treatments and to recover.
Instead of being derailed by his cancer, Gian focused on reviewing for the board exams.
“We knew that if he could focus on studying for the board exams, even if he couldn’t take it right away, it would be the very thing he needed to distract him from feeling sorry for himself. It would have been what would make him want to get well and to prevail over cancer,” Aly remembers.
Then the pandemic struck, upending many lives. PGH was declared a COVID-19 center and was compelled to pull out all interns from the front lines. The interns had no choice but to proceed with their training online. “Because of this, completing internship training became possible for Gian together with his batch,” Aly shares the silver lining the COVID-19 cloud had for Gian.
Doc Gian was blessed with cheerleaders in heaven and on earth as he not only underwent grueling chemo treatments but also studied for the medical boards — at the same time! Just before the start of his chemo sessions, Gian asked his older brother Dino to film him while he was shaving the hair off his head.
That day, Gian returned home to a surprise “Shaving Party” organized by his siblings. His friends from medical school and community were there. There were two barbers through the night and they took turns having their heads shaved or hair cropped short. “He felt so loved! It made him cry, it made all of us cry. This was tangible support as far as Gian was concerned. It helped him brave chemo because he was confident that he wasn’t going through it alone,” shares the grateful mom.
“I must say the support from my friends and family put me through the worst days of chemo and board review. I was lucky enough to have friends who would call me, make me laugh, and make me forget my worries for the rest of my day. Preparing for the boards gave me only four months to read five years’ worth of medical school books,” Gian says, looking back.
When the results of the board exams were released, Gian thought he was dreaming. After all, the results were bared at around 1 a.m. “I woke up to my parents’ screaming and a dozen missed calls and text messages. But yes, there was a feeling of overwhelming gratitude,” recalls the newly minted MD.
Aly is suffused with gratitude. “Gratitude to God for this great blessing. Gratitude to all who journeyed with us, prayed with us. We felt affirmed that indeed, God is a God faithful to his promises.”
“I am still in remission since I need to be in remission for a certain number of years in order to be considered cancer-free,” says Gian, who is now trying to pursue an anesthesiology residency. “I’m just really playing everything by ear and taking things one step at a time as long as my body allows it.”
Gian surged on despite his cancer, faced his chemotherapy unrelentingly and moved to capture the board exams. His gambit paid off.