On Monday: Evelyn Ignacio survived World War II terror in the Philippines and then came to the United States to become a doctor.
Evelyn did very well in her studies. In 1950, she graduated from college in San Francisco and was ready for medical school. She applied to many of the top schools in the country and waited for the acceptances to be delivered to her mailbox.
And she waited, content in the blissful ignorance of the young.
And she waited.
“I applied to Stanford, I applied to Northwestern. I applied to all the best medical schools in the United States and, of course, I got turned down. I was insulted and hurt. I thought, ‘I don’t understand why they don’t want me.’”
(They didn’t want you, Evelyn, because you failed to have a “Y” chromosome. Nothing personal.)
She finally was accepted at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. It was then a 100-year-old school founded for “gender-disadvantaged” students like her.
Evelyn enjoys talking about those days, though the times were not exactly friendly to young female doctor-wannabes. The subject fits her cheerful nature because the end result was good — for her and female doctors in general.
After graduation in 1955, Evelyn went searching for a specialty. She discounted surgery because that was a hard-to-crack male bastion. Next was OB/GYN, but that, too, came with a problem.
It started with her residency.
“I was walking around like a zombie all the time because I never got any sleep. I grumbled that ‘Women all have babies in the middle of the night.’ I later learned that was true because I had my babies in the middle of the night. However, I decided to find some other specialty that had a more civilized schedule.
“I kind of liked pathology because that’s a very interesting field, but my husband-to-be said, ‘I don’t know if I like the idea of your coming home after dealing with dead bodies all day long.’ I said, ‘Why? I’m not going to bring them home with me.’
“He says, ‘Yeah, but you’d probably smell of formaldehyde.’”
She settled on anesthesiology because it usually meant regular hours and involved working in an operating room, which had always fascinated her. Another factor: It was a field where women found greater acceptance at the time.
Evelyn tells of early experiences with ether, which still generates ugly memories for people who experienced it as part of childhood tonsillectomies back in the day.
“Ether is really yucky,” she says. “I didn’t like the smell. Kids don’t like the smell, either. When you give it, you drip it into a gauze mask. The kids would struggle, and that bothered me.”
She quickly put ether behind her because she was on a wave-crest of great advances in her specialty.
Evelyn looks up from the lunch menu at Bentley’s Steak & Chop House in Encinitas.
“I only had one patient reject me. I had walked into the operating room and introduced myself. The woman patient being prepped looked at me. She said, ‘No, I don’t want you.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ She said, ‘I heard you’re Filipino. I don’t want a Filipino.’ I said ‘OK’ and walked out and found another anesthesiologist. Then I became curious and later asked the nurses about it. They told me the woman’s husband had been cheating on her with a Filipina.”
You probably had some tense moments.
“I had a lot. I had a lot.”
Share a couple, please.
“A couple? Oh, my goodness.”
After that, you can eat.
That merry laugh and the menu closes. “There was a patient diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm. The surgeon told him, ‘This is a time bomb. It can explode anytime and then you’re dead, so we should operate right now.’ The man said, ‘Well, I want to go home first and do a couple of things before I have surgery.’ He was told, ‘That’s definitely not a good idea.’ Anyway, when he was getting ready to go, he passed out because the aneurism started to leak.
“The surgeon and everybody were there. I was there. I had to secure the man’s breathing, but I had no anesthesia. I had to forcibly put the breathing tube in. We took him, bed and all, to the operating room. There was a surgeon sitting on the bed, pushing down on his belly so that he could at least have some blood (flow).
“In the operating room, I gave him a paralyzing drug so he couldn’t struggle and then started the anesthesia. As soon as he was relaxed, the incision was made. They had their hands in there and hung on to the (artery). We saved the man’s life.”
In another case, “A young girl was the niece of one of the doctors. She was driving to the hospital to visit him and a big car hit her (Volkswagen). She was unconscious when she was brought into the ER. She had bled a lot with a head injury, so they took her directly to the operating room. The neurosurgeons were doing the head. I gave the anesthetic.
“Everybody was there, working, trying to help this girl, which, looking back on it, it was a hopeless case because when they opened her head, all the blood just kind of came out. The whole floor of the operating room was just blood. We couldn’t replace it fast enough. She just (cardiac) arrested. We even opened her chest. It was a desperate measure, but sometimes desperate measures don’t work. We did everything we could think of, but there comes a point when you can’t do anything else. She died on the table.
“Her uncle, who was a staff doctor, wasn’t in the operating room. But he was in the hospital and worried sick. Afterward, he was furious that we let her die. No amount of us telling him that even if she had survived, the trauma would have left her brain-dead, (made a difference).
“He was furious with everyone, but that was forgivable.”
Once the memory door is ajar, decades of experience push it open.
“I’ve sometimes been called down to the emergency room. They would call the anesthesiologist for any trauma that comes in with respiratory problems. There was one guy who came in. His throat had been slashed with a — what is that cutter they use? A box cutter. I looked down there, and his larynx was staring up at me. It was horrible. All I had to do, though, was stick a tube in there. That prevented any blood from going out, and we sucked all the blood out that was in there. That helped him breathe and saved his life.
“On our very best days, that’s what we did. We saved lives.”
Today, Evelyn Ignacio is the grande dame of five children and 15 grandchildren. Her kids are educated and doing well. One daughter followed her into medicine.
She travels the world with her sister who visits from Manila, and she looks back with satisfaction on decades of administering mercy to helpless patients on thousands of operating tables.
And she doesn’t think of the shiny brown leather boots worn by the Japanese soldier who interrogated her during World War II. Not very often.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]