An Encounter with One of the Greatest Filipina of Our Time: Dr. Fe Del Mundo

The author with Dr. Fe Del Mundo at Fe Del Mundo Medical Center, circa 2008.

I had this once in a lifetime privilege of meeting and actually getting to know one of the WOMEN HEROES of our time. She was a highly respected and renowned pediatrician who had founded a hospital and dedicated her life to improving healthcare for children in the Philippines. It was great to meet Dr. Fe Del Mundo in person. I was honored to have the chance to speak with her and discuss the vaccines that I was promoting at that time.

Dr. Del Mundo was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the importance of vaccinations for children. She understood the benefits they could provide in preventing disease and saving lives. She was also very supportive of the work that pharmaceutical companies were doing to create safe and effective vaccines.

As she was introduced in the event, I was impressed by Dr. Del Mundo’s profile, her dedication to patients and her commitment to advancing healthcare in the Philippines. It was inspiring to see her enthusiasm for improving the health and well-being of children in the country. 

She was literally and figuratively the “Faith of the World,” as what her name connotes, and her strong faith did not keep her from science. There was definitely more to her than the name she built.

Dr. Fe Villanueva Del Mundo was born in Manila in 1911, to Bernardo and Paz Del Mundo. The sixth of eight children. Three of her siblings did not survive infancy. Her older sister did not survive appendicitis at age 11, but the loss that affected her the most deeply was her seven-year-old little sister Elena, who lost her life to an abdominal infection. Dr. Del Mundo found Elena’s journal, in it, Elena had said that she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, it was pretty heartbreaking for Dr. Del Mundo. All of these personal tragedies have inspired her, right then and there, Dr. Del Mundo decided she would take Elena’s place, to make sure other children could pursue their dreams instead of being buried before they could even begin to dream.

So, when she was fifteen years old, Dr. Del Mundo was enrolled at the University of the Philippines- Medical Program. And in 1933, she graduated with her Med Degree as Valedictorian, passed the board exams and placed third that same year.

She remembered being so afraid when she was asked to speak in front of her class that she would often cry. She later said that she was quiet, she didn’t have much to say!

Still when the Philippines’ president of the time, Manuel Quezon, offered her a scholarship for a post graduate study in the United States, she chose well.

In an interview in 2007, she remembered arriving at the dorm, to find that it was intended for men. Kind of like the med school where women generally couldn’t get in. But she had scholastic credentials that was pretty appealing, so they let her stay, making her the first Filipino woman admitted to the Harvard Medical School.

In addition to Harvard, she studied at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Her focus was pediatrics, specializing in malnutrition.

Dr. Del Mundo also lead research studies of things like dengue fever, polio, measles. Her work lead to a fuller understanding of disease and the importance of immunization especially in children. Folks in the States made her very lucrative offers to set up practice there. But she wanted to benefit her own country, so, in 1941 (just before the start of World War 2) she was back in the Philippines and volunteered for the International National Red Cross.

It was also not long before the Japanese occupied the Philippines. So, Dr. Del Mundo set up a hospice on the campus of University of Santo Tomas–which the Japanese were using as an internment camp. For two years she cared for the children there. Her tireless efforts and compassion earned her the title “Angel of Santo Tomas.”

She treated the injured after the Battle of Manila in a makeshift camp that eventually became the Jose Reyes Medical Center.

Then the Japanese shut her down, of course. She moved to North General Hospital as Director- making her the first Filipina to lead a government hospital which had so much red tape. So, she just went ahead and opened her own hospital (with 107 beds) in 1957, it was initially called Children’s Medical Center.

Today it is known as the Fe Del Mundo Medical Center and is located in Quezon City. But how did she open it? Well, for starter, she sold up everything she owned including her house. She got a government loan (from GSIS), drummed up some donations, and went to work.

So obviously she bought another house, ’cause she needs a place to live. But then the hospital needed and adult ward. So, she sold that house, adult ward covered. That’s all well and good, but she still needed a place to live. So yeah, she bought another house. But sold that one when the hospital needed a mother baby ward. It appeared that she finally got tired of moving. So, she did for the last time into a small apartment on the second floor of the hospital. It was ideal for her. She could stay closer to the patients.

But we need to back up just a little bit, because she did lots of incredible things. See, kids were not surviving simple illness like diarrhea. Local health professionals had no experience in pediatrics and didn’t seem interested in learning. So, every sick kid got the same diagnosis: “Oh, that’s worms!” But clearly, not everything is worms, so she developed the BRAT diet.

BRAT stands for banana, rice, applesauce, and toast. It is particularly helpful with kids with nausea or diarrhea, because it helps prevent severe dehydration. Instead of doctors making them more dehydrated by saying “hey just make them puke!”

The BRAT diet is used worldwide, including in medical textbooks like the ones she wrote, and which is still used in the Philippines. As she worked, more children survived, including those with abdominal issues like the one that had taken Elena.

But one of her passions was bringing healthcare to rural areas. They often had little or no access to adequate medical care especially in pediatrics, neonatal care, and premature birth. Preemies in those areas had very little chance… until her. Because in 1941, she developed an incubator. It was made using materials that were readily available in the area, and it didn’t need electricity. It was two native clothes baskets made of bamboo, one smaller. They would fit together and were fitted with a cloth suspended scale to monitor the babies’ weight. Babies’ temperatures were regulated with hot water bottles, and they were fitted with hoods to provide much needed oxygen. And preemies started living. Between saving children from diarrhea induced dehydration to giving those preemies a fighting chance, she reduced infant morbidity and mortality significantly.

After all that, you might be surprised to learn that she was a devout Catholic who got up at 5am every single day to attend the Holy Mass before she went on rounds. She said her faith was the greatest influence on her life., but it didn’t mean she would ignore science. She believed improving the quality of life for the underprivileged begins with reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies.

So, in addition to training local folks in medical care, and childcare, she opened rural clinics to teach about proper nutrition, family planning, and reproductive and sexual health, in direct opposition to church doctrine. She said it was possible for people to control reproduction and remain true to their religion. She proved it! Learn from the examples that are set forth for you!

Anyway, she never married, she never had children of her own. But because of her devotion to medicine and to public service she was to a certain degree THE MOTHER and CAREGIVER to thousands of Filipino children. She never stopped working; she was still making rounds into her 90s! Literally in the last few years she did so from her wheelchair.

Dr. Fe Del Mundo passed in 2011, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday. She had so many firsts and recognitions: from an Elizabeth Blackwelll Award to being named the First Woman National Scientist of the Philippines.

Well, she got a google doodle in 2018. Four years before she passed, Dr. Fe Del Mundo said her greatest regret in life was no longer being able to go into rural areas to bring better care to the children there. But her name literally translates as “Faith of the World” Faith… and that brought science and HOPE to generations.

It was a humbling experience to meet someone so selfless and committed to helping others. I remember her being on a wheelchair that time when we had an event in her hospital in 2008. I was truly inspired by her determination and resilience in the face of adversity. Despite her own challenges, she was dedicated to making a difference in the lives of others. My chance to get to know her left a lasting impact on me, reminding me of the importance of empathy and understanding in the healthcare industry. It was a privilege to have met such an incredible individual, and I will always carry her story with me as a reminder of the power of compassion and advocacy. I walked away from the encounter feeling motivated and grateful for the opportunity to work with such a remarkable healthcare professional. #jnv

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