It was 15 minutes before 10PM when I received a message from Dr. Jerome Senen that he’s ready for the interview. He had said earlier that late evening was the best time to do it as he would be busy “taking care of my wife’s affairs” this weekend. By which he means Dr. Kathlynne Anne “Kharen” Abat-Senen’s interment.
Dr. Kharen passed away last August 23 after a months-long battle with the novel coronavirus. She was admitted at the Philippine General Hospital twice—the first time for 23 days, and the last one for 44.
Dr. Senen said his wife’s case still baffles the medical team who handled it. “Ang nangyari kasi sa kanya, nagkaroon ng complications with her other organs,” he tells me. Eventually, her lungs went from bad to worse, to the point where they had to use an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), a life support machine, that’s not usually used for COVID patients.
“Yung ECMO machine takes over the work of your lungs by giving your blood oxygen and by removing carbon dioxide. Hindi nakayanan ng lungs niya in the end. Because of that, talagang na-affect na rin yung other organs niya kaya talagang nagkaroon na ng complications,” he explains.
Dr. Jerome relates these details calmly, but you can feel the pain and loneliness in his voice and his eyes, even if I’m just watching him from a screen—especially when we started to look back at their memories together, beginning from they met back in 1999.
When Jerome met Kharen
They were med school classmates, him and Kharen. At the UP College of Medicine, there was a classroom with a piano. It’s where their class would hang out during lunch break or in between subjects. A classmate would play the piano, and Kharen would usually go in front of the class to sing to everyone. “Kharen has a very, very beautiful voice, talagang magaling siyang kumanta,” Dr. Jerome remembers.
Back when they were still students, since they live in opposite parts of Metro Manila—she in Las Piñas and he in Valenzuela—they would often leave their respective homes early to avoid the traffic. “Usually dalawa kami palaging nauuna sa loob ng classroom na naghihintay. So it started na palagi kaming nagkukuwentuhan. Nung kumakanta-kanta na sya, I started pursuing her,” he says.
The friendship eventually blossomed into a romance, and she became his girlfriend on December 1999. They were “steady” for nine years and married in 2008. “Matagal ang hinintay namin because gusto muna naming matapos ng medical school, ng residency training sa PGH.”
A loyal friend
In a class of more than 150 students, Kharen was known for being an extrovert. “She was very, very friendly and bubbly,” describes Dr. Jerome. Later on, in the medical community, she would earn the tag Ms. Friendship. “Kilala siya for being friendly not only with her patients, but also with her colleagues. She is compassionate and a dedicated person pagdating sa mga pasyente niya.”
But what Dr. Jerome loved most about her as a friend was her loyalty. “She will defend you, and fight your battles for you,” he says. “She’s the type of person na kapag friend ka niya, ipaglalaban ka nya. Kunwari nadedehado ka na at wala syang kinalaman sa problema na yon, she will still defend you. Ganoon siyang klase na kaibigan.” Dr. Jerome experienced this firsthand. “There was an instance na nagkakaroon ng away at ako ang inaapi. Kahit na hindi siya involved doon [sa away], aawayin niya ang mga nang-aapi sa akin.”
Straight A student
The middle child among three siblings, Kharen wasn’t exactly the bubbly lady she turned out to be. She used to be very shy such that her parents had to enroll her in a Speech Power class to develop her personality.
The training must have helped but what really made her come out of her shell was music. When she joined the church choir in her hometown Las Piñas, she slowly developed a close circle of friends in their neighborhood. She carried over this passion for music when she eventually became a member of the UP College of Medicine choir. Even after graduation, the UP alumna would remain active in reunion concerts and “virtual choirs.”
She was a bright student. She was valedictorian in both her grade school and high school classes. Before eventually pursuing her dreams of becoming a doctor, she took up Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (MBB) at UP.
Fearless and compassionate
“Ever since, nandun na talaga ang drive niya to become a compassionate and dedicated doctor,” says Dr. Jerome. “Isa sa mga napag-usapan namin dati when we started practicing, na hindi kami maningingil ng mahal even if both of us are specialists—I’m a pediatric pulmonologist, she’s a neonatologist. We will still accept patients kahit na pagod na tayo. Na-instill sa amin yung compassion for the ordinary person.”
He says Kharen is the type of doctor who will never say no to the call of duty—even if it requires her to go to the hospital at 1 AM, and stay on till the following day. “Hindi siya uuwi hangga’t hindi okey ang pasyente niya. So ever since naging dream niya na maging doctor, nandoon na yung passion niya talaga.”
She practiced neonatology (caring for newborns especially those born premature or with an illness) for 10 years, so all of those babies—some of them twins and triplets—she had saved over the years are either toddlers or young kids now. “May isang nag-message sa akin, ‘Doc, eto na po yung na-save ni Doc Kharen na less than one kilogram na baby nung pinanganak, ngayon po ay seven years old na. Wala po siyang disability. The life of those kids—that’s her greatest legacy as a doctor,” says Dr. Jerome.
When the number of COVID cases started to rise in the Philippines in March, it never entered Dr. Kharen’s mind to step back, take a break, or abandon her calling. “Kharen is a very fearless person, especially if it’s for the service of others, kahit to the detriment of her own health, gagawin pa din niya.”
One time, she told him, “Kung hindi tayo titingin ng mga pasyente, sino ang titingin sa kanila? So we might as well do our job, do our God-given duty as a doctor and serve the people. The reason God put us here is because we can do something to help.”
Unfortunately, Kharen caught the COVID infection in June. She was first admitted on June 10 but she was able to recover and got discharged on July 2.
“Nung time na ’yon, naging watcher niya ako. At that time kasi, both of us tested positive of COVID, so pwede na kaming magsama sa isang room,” recalls Dr. Jerome.
But on her second admission, Karen was already intubated (hooked to a mechanical ventilator) on her second day. “So during the 44 days that she was admitted, 42 of those, never ko na siyang nakausap in person,” says Dr. Jerome. “She was already in the Intensive Care Unit.”
With Kharen’s passing, Dr. Jerome says he had lost a big part of his life—the proverbial wing beneath his wings, the driver of his dreams.
He says they were a great tandem. Their personalities complemented each other. “Siya kasi yung type of person na friendly, ako yung type na mas tahimik. Siya yung impulsive, ako yung restrained. So kapag may nafi-feel sya, sasabihin nya kaagad. Ako naman, ‘teka, hinay muna tayo, pag-isipan muna.’”
Kharen is also the type who always wanted to try new things—whether it be a new restaurant their friends are raving about, or a resort that just opened.
“Siya yung mas nagpu-push, siya yung mas nag-aaya. Ako naman, oo lang ako nang oo,” he recalls. “Sabi ko nga, ‘yan ang mami-miss ko. Sino na ang mag-aaya sa akin?”
At this point, Dr. Jerome pauses to hold back tears falling from the corners of his eyes. He will miss the times they would drive together going to the hospital, he says, and the times Kharen would request for their favorite ginger ale drink. “Hinahanap namin palagi yung ginger ale na nakikita sa Pound x Flatterie or sa Mendokoro Ramenba, kasi gustong-gusto nya yung ginger ale na yun. Sino na’ng kasama kong umiinom ng ginger ale?”
Kharen was the one who initiated plans for the big family to-dos —from birthday parties to making insurance investments to building a home to taking dream vacations. They were planning to see the Northern Lights in Canada, or Iceland, when the kids get a little older. And Dr. Jerome would be the supportive partner, giving his encouraging “yes,” entrusting all his earnings for Kharen to make the dreams happen.
“On the day na malapit na siyang mawala, kinausap ko siya: ‘Hon, paano na ang mga plans natin sa buhay?’ Yung mga travel plans namin ay di natuloy because of the pandemic, pero parang tuluyan ng mawawala kasi nawala na si Kharen,” he says as he finally allows the tears to fall.
Jerome and Kharen have two kids. One is aged 11, the other 8 years old. He deems it more necessary to invest in their education.
“Kaya sabi ko sa kanya: ‘Hon, bantayan mo naman kami. Ipagdasal mo kami diyan sa taas na sana humaba pa ang buhay ko kasi kawawa naman ang mga bata kung pati ako mawawala. Ipagdasal mo kami na magtuluy-tuloy ang blessings namin so I can still give our children a comfortable life,” Dr. Jerome continues.
Coping with loss
Since the start of the pandemic, the Senens have made it a habit to pray the rosary as a family.
“It’s more for protection of the family and all of the health care professionals handling COVID cases. Yun yung dasal namin na sana yung pandemic mag-end na.” They still do the ritual despite the fact that they’re only three now instead of four.
He also talks to the kids and reminds them of all the happy memories they had with their mother. “Ayokong ma-instill sa utak nila yung mga mga nangyari in the last 44 days. Ayokong matandaan nila na si Mama nila is just another COVID patient.”
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Dr. Jerome admits he feels a little hurt whenever news items pertain to his wife as “the 40th health care professional who died of COVID.” “She’s not just a number—she’s a person, she’s a mom, she’s a wife, she’s a sister, she’s a daughter. She’s not just a statistic. She’s a person who lived her life well,” he says.
When the pandemic is over, one of the things the Senens plan to do as a family is go on a road trip, or go to a resort or hotel they had gone to when Kharen was still alive.
“I want our family to relive the happy memories that we had with Kharen,” says Dr. Jerome. “Yun din yung nagingdeal ko with the rest of the family, siblings ni Kharen, mga
Photo from Dr. Kharen's Facebook page