It was an unsettling sight that film director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna chanced upon along the side streets of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) on the day he visited the medical institution last February 2. On his way out after having a swab test at the medical facility, he came across rows and piles of condemned hospital beds. PGH will no longer use them, he was told, as part of the hospital upgrade. These will either be refurbished or donated to other hospitals.
The image was shared in a private message by Carlitos’s wife, writer Bibeth Orteza, with artist and University of the Philipines faculty member Toym Imao, who would have a scheduled meeting at the National Institute of Health (NIH) two days later for an art project.
After his meeting on February 4, Imao was accompanied by Dr. Leo Cubillan to the site where Siguion Reyna saw the hospital beds (NIH is located inside the PGH complex). “I myself was overcome with the power that these beds emanated, the stories they can tell,” Imao said. Beholding the disturbing sight amidst a backdrop of greens along its periphery, an idea occurred to the multi-media artist—beds engulfed by flowers.
It seemed that spirit guardians were at work that afternoon, says Imao in his Facebook post, because Zena Bernardo, an activist and “plantita”, was having a meeting at his brother’s home office regarding a project, too. Imao immediately asked her if “she wanted to help out on the [beds with flower] installation because the coincidence of meeting her on that exact same day was so uncanny.”
He proposed the idea about the art installation to PGH Director Dr. Gap Legaspi, who wholeheartedly supported the idea. “Soon enough our creative team expanded from what was planned to be a quiet installation to a tribute program now being planned together with the PGH and the University of the Philippines,” Imao shares on social media. Director Krix San Gabriel, Katsch Catoy, and Prof. Lisa Ito of the Concerned Artist of the Philippines also offered a hand in the project, and they eventually made up the core team.
The project struck a chord in their hearts because they themselves have personal experiences and relations with fallen frontliners. Orteza, he shares, lost his brother, Dr. Neil Orteza, in the line of duty because of Covid-19. “It was so heartening to see that his three daughters, one a resident and the two other students of medicine at PGH, helped us plant the flowers on the hospital beds on the first day of working on the art installation,” he shares.
Zena and Imao, on the other hand, attended to the funeral concerns of a doctor at the height the pandemic—assisted the family with death certificates, cremation, and the honor of delivering the doctor’s ashes back home to her loved ones.
“There are so many stories to tell, and we are currently collecting them to integrate these narratives into an audio collection, which visitors to the installation will hear in the form of whispers coming from the twelve hospital flower beds representing the 12 months of the pandemic lockdown,” says Imao.
A tribute program entitled “Aluyan ng Paghilom” will be held on March 30 at the PGH Oblation Plaza, which will include testimonies, sharing, and gratitude by the kins of doctors, colleagues, and friends of fallen frontliners. The program will be streamed online to reach a wider audience.
Photos courtesy of Toym Imao