DR ROEL CAGAPE was just a teenager when he found his calling.
Two tribesmen, carrying a patient on a makeshift stretcher made simply of cloth tied to wooden poles, knocked on the door of his home with an emergency.
They pleaded with his parents to take them to a hospital in nearby General Santos City in the Philippines, as there was no such facility in the Sarangani province where they lived.
It was the 1970s and the roads between the municipality of Malapatan, Sarangani (then a part of South Cotabato province) and General Santos City were terribly rugged. But the patient was clearly running out of time.
“It was heart-wrenching seeing someone dying from lack of medical attention. It gave me the resolve to pursue medicine to help poor patients,” Dr Cagape, now 54, told Asian Correspondent.
The good doctor never looked back since. For decades, he shunned worldly pursuits to care for the indigenous and the marginalised living in remote areas in Sarangani, in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
In a country where doctors are often counted among the wealthy, Dr Cagape dedicated his life to serving the poor for free, making him a beacon of hope for the destitute of Sarangani.
He is not a volunteer for the government’s “Doctor to the Barrio” (Doctor to the Village) programme, but a private medical practitioner who depends on the generosity of individuals and groups for the logistics needed by his foundation to help the needy.
Dr Cagape, born to a family of 12 siblings, credits his parents and their Catholic upbringing for his decision to serve the poor. His father has passed away while his mother is now 82 years old. In their prime, both were active church lay leaders.
His siblings, meanwhile, are all professionals, including one who is a priest.
“They taught us the love of God and to care for others.”
Invoking divine providence for his line of work, Dr Cagape’s concern for the needy has led him to a bachelor life.
He specialises in family medicine, which covers healthcare for people of all ages, and established Hearts and Brains Inc. in 1995 along with 245 poor families.
The members built the spartan clinic where poor patients line up to get free medical services.
Open from 9am to 11am Monday to Friday, Dr Cagape serves an average of 40 patients a day there. Outside clinic hours, he holds medical consultations in another part of town.
In the afternoon, he rushes to General Santos City where he also provides free medical care to indigent patients, in collaboration with the local Catholic church, which provides him a free clinic space.
On the weekends, the doctor goes to the mountains, sometimes crossing 30 rivers on foot, to render free medical services to tribesmen.
Dr Cagape also hosts a weekly radio programme at a local station where he mostly tackles health issues.
The “Ambulansyang Kabayo” (horse ambulance) and “I-txt Si Doc” (send doctor a text message) are among his most popular projects.
He has no secretary or personal assistant, but volunteer nurses and social workers help him. The medicines he gives out for free are donated by friends and medical representatives, with some coming from abroad after hearing of his work.
Along with his free medical services, Dr Cagape also incorporates education and nutrition programmes into his outreach missions in the hinterlands.
Asked if he is happy, the doctor tersely told Asian Correspondent, “No”.
“How can you be happy when you have to walk for hours under the sun or the rain, at times hungry, to reach the community? It’s a lot of hard work and sacrifices,” he said.
“What I get is satisfaction after giving them medical treatment. I want them to experience love and care, and not die without dignity.”
His work isn’t just laborious – it’s also dangerous. The doctor’s weekly treks into the Sarangani province puts his life at risk because the area is also a known battlefield of the Philippine military and communist rebels.
“There is the danger of being suspected as a spy, but I’m doing my work apolitically, so I’m not afraid to walk even in the dead of the night in the mountains to help these poor people.
“I have faith in God nothing will happen to me,” he said.
Dr Cagape’s thankless and tireless work for the marginalised has led him to receive several awards such as the Gawad Geny Lopez Jr. Bayaning Filipino Award and the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Award, formerly known as the Mother Teresa Award, to name a few.
He admitted, however, there was a time he pondered going abroad to work so he can live the good life. There were also good local job offers.
But he said he abandoned these opportunities to fulfil his childhood promise of helping the poor.
Given another chance and in another lifetime, Dr Cagape said he would still choose the “less travelled path” for the sake of those not on the map of any healthcare system.