It was 1am last Thursday, November 26.
Jomel Garcia Lapides was at his boarding house quietly studying a video lecture for his ophthalmology class when the Telegram chat with his batchmates from Mu Sigma Phi, a medical fraternity at the UP College of Medicine, started buzzing. He just topped the 2020 Physician Licensure Examination and the congratulatory messages started pouring in.
It was news he didn’t expect to receive that morning. There is usually an announcement that precedes the release of the board exam results. “I was surprised and shocked!” he shares with ANCX.
The announcement came almost two weeks after the exam. By Friday morning, after the announcement, he’s looking pretty chill, shyly admitting the good news has yet to sink in. Many people are congratulating him. He has quite a few interview requests. “Medyo overwhelming ang events surrounding it,” he says in a calm voice. And the fact that the announcement coincided with the preparations for his residency made his weekend even more eventful. “Grabe, pero nama-manage naman,” he says, clearly excited.
It was the second time for Jomel to top a board exam. The first was nine years ago, for the Nursing Licensure Examinations. “Were you expecting it?” I ask. He says he’s a little surprised—but grateful—because he did pray and he did study hard so he could make it to the top 10. “Yun talaga ang aim ko for myself. But God gave me more than what I prayed for,” he says, breaking into a smile.
How to be you po
To begin with, Jomel was a consistent honor student. And for the Physician Licensure Exams, he maintained the usual study routines that worked for him when he took the Nursing board exam in 2011. “I had my weekly schedules kung ano ang aaralin, and I really tried to stick to it,” he shares. “I know kung ano ang weaknesses ko na topics so I spent more time on those. Dun sa subjects na tingin ko okey ako, I allotted less time na.”
A big chunk of the prep involved memorization, and he did employ memory aids whenever necessary. But Jomel didn’t stop there. “I really tried my best to understand the lessons,” he says.
He also frequently reviewed what he thought were “high-yield” subjects he had difficulty memorizing, especially as the examination dates inched closer.
Part of the preparation, he says, is the spiritual guidance he gets from his church. A born-again Christian, Jomel tried his best to never miss online service and small group discussions. “Nakaka-tempt minsan na hindi um-attend. Parang naiisip ko na it’s better to just review kasi sayang din ang time. Pero sabi ko, I’ll show my faith sa Lord by allotting this time for him,” he says.
The examination day
The examinees were advised to sleep early the night before the exam but Jomel found himself still up at 2am. “Actually di ako makatulog,” he shares, laughing. “Pero I know na may tendency talaga akong maging ganoon. I was like that kasi nung nag-nursing board [exam]. So what I did was nag-try pa din akong maghabol ng mga pwede kong i-memorize.”
Since they were required to be at the exam venue by 6:30am (he was assigned to be at Perpetual Help College of Manila in Sampaloc), he had to wake up at 5am. He took a full breakfast, “hindi pwede’ng basta tinapay lang,” he tells me.
The seat assigned to him was adjacent to a wall, which he found to be a comfortable spot—it allowed him to fully concentrate on the task at hand. After saying his prayers, he gave the questionnaire a quick run-through, answered the items he was sure about, and marked the questions he wanted to go back to with a star.
“Looking back, dapat sinulat ko na lang muna [sa scratch paper ang answers pag di ako sigurado]. Nag-shade agad ako eh,” he remembers. “Nagbura-bura pa ako. But I made sure naman na malinis ang pagbura ko.”
The exam consisted of multiple choice type questions—12 subjects with 100 items each. These the examinees took over a four-day period.
How did he feel after the exams? “Feeling ko naman papasa ako, but what I wasn’t sure of was if I will be able to make it into the top 10. Meron kasing questions na hindi talaga ako maka-decide. Then upon checking after the exams, I knew there were questions that I answered incorrectly. Pero confident naman ako kay Lord na papasa ako,” he says.
A nurse first
Getting into the healthcare profession was not exactly what the now 29-year-old had initially planned for himself. “Nung bata ako, more on engineering ang interest ko. Math and Sciences ang strengths ko,” he shares. It is for this reason he picked engineering courses in most of the schools he applied in.
But not completely aware of the UPCAT rules, he picked nursing (an in demand course at that time) as his first choice, and put engineering, his most favored course, at the bottom of his list. “Ang inisip ko, pag di ako napili sa nursing, baka mapili ako sa second (computer science) or sa third at fourth choices (engineering).”
To his surprise, he qualified in the Nursing course, and by virtue of his grades became a university scholar. “Medyo nag-panic ako,” he recalls, laughing. He was having second thoughts. At enrollment, he even inquired if it was possible to be transferred to an engineering course in UP Diliman. He was told this was not allowed.
Motivated by the prospect of eventually helping to support his family, Jomel, the eldest of three children pursued Nursing, enduring the hardships along the way. These included shuttling from their place in Montalban, Rizal to UP Manila everyday. “I realized kasi na mas makakatipid ako if mag-uwian so I did that. Pero naging problem ko naman ang byahe. Pag 6am ang call time sa hospital, dapat 3:30am nakaalis na ako ng Rizal. Tapos pag gabi naman kasabay ko ang rush hour, minsan 10pm or 11pm na ako nakakauwi. Pagod talaga ang katawan,” he says.
The scholarships supported the school fees. His father’s earnings as a tailor helped provide for his allowances.
He admits initially planning to shift to an engineering course in UP Diliman, but when he started clinical practice in his senior year, he began to really appreciate the medical field. “Kasi sobrang tough ng training namin sa [UP College of Nursing]. There was a point nung third year ako, na parang pagod na pagod na ako,” he admits. “Nursing just grew on me while I was taking it.”
Road to becoming a doctor
After the nursing board exam, he worked for three years as a nurse at the UP-PGH’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. That was when he was presented with an opportunity to pursue medicine through a scholarship. He admittedly had apprehensions about it because he was already the breadwinner of the family.
“Kasi I thought I’ll need to resign from work. But then nagkaroon ng way for me to still continue working and earning kahit nasa med school na ako, through the help of our department and our chief nurse,” he shares. “The encouragement of my family, friends, colleagues, consultants inspired me to pursue my medical education.”
Jomel intended to pursue his residency training in ophthalmology. “It’s the same department where I worked as a nurse. Babalik lang ako, but this time as a doctor,” he says, smiling. “Dun din talaga nagsimula ang inspiration ko to pursue medicine.”
He also chose the field of specialization because vision, he says, is often taken for granted. “Feeling ko malaki ang demand for it and madaming tao na need ng care for their eyes,” says Jomel. With myriad opportunities he can possibly take on, the board topnotcher is looking forward to a bright future ahead—thanks to the college who nurtured his potential and the people that allowed him to see he can achieve so much more.
Photos courtesy of Jomel Lapides