On October 11, 2020, just a few days after his 49th birthday, PR practitioner Mel Panabi came home to his work desk and noticed something different with his thermos. He’s made it a habit to have a water container stationed at his table so he doesn’t need to reach far when he gets thirsty. That Sunday, however, he took note that the water in the bottle was unusually warm.
He didn’t make much of it, however. “I thought maybe it was such a hot day, so the water warmed up,” recalls Mel. “When I swallowed, I felt that warmth. Then the warmth escalated, it started to get hotter and hotter. Then it became unbearably hot. I felt like I swallowed fire. I started retching and gagging.”
As the pain got unbearable, a number of possibilities crossed his mind. Did the water turn into acid? Did something leak from the water bottle? He started shouting in agony. He remembers his then 11-year-daughter Alex running towards him asking, “Dada, what’s happening?”
By this time, he’s realized someone has poisoned him. He rushed to the nearest bathroom and started “vomiting thick globs of bloody mucus,” he wrote in an essay for the Philippine Star.
Through the help of a friend, Mel’s wife Dedet was able to bring him to the hospital. Lab tests showed he had ingested a highly alkaline solution more corrosive than bleach. It was also confirmed the poison was not merely accidental traces of soap left from washing the bottle. Based on the PH level of the chemical, the couple figured it was the odorless and taste-free Liquid Sosa that was mixed into Mel’s drink.
There were only seven people living in the Panabi home then—Mel, Dedet, their two children, the couple’s elderly mothers, and their household help. “Even if there was a suspicion that it was [the help who did it], we couldn’t reconcile the reality. We were still in denial that someone had attempted to take my life in the safety of our own home,” says Mel, looking back at his harrowing experience.
The lady came into the Panabi household in the early part of 2020, during those innocent days before the pandemic and the lockdowns. A neighbor’s kasambahay vouched for her, so Mel and Dedet were quite confident she would make a good household help. They would soon find out she was the opposite. She was far from efficient, she liked asking for salary advances, and she did not know how to cook.
“But while we wanted to let her go, naisip namin, kawawa naman to let her go in the middle of a lockdown. Tiisin na lang natin. Let’s make do with what we have, wait till the lockdown is lifted. And that’s when we’d let her go,” Mel shares, recalling his agreement with his wife.
The helper would often ask for cash advances for various reasons (e.g. she needed money to send home, or she needed to buy cigarettes or whatever she wanted from a neighborhood store) and the couple would always accommodate her requests. When the advances reached the P15,000 mark, however, Mel thought they needed to put the requests to a stop. Like many businesses, the company he was working for was badly hit by the pandemic. This led to the slowdown in the company’s operations and downsizing of manpower.
“I told Dedet wag na tayong magbigay ng advance kasi alam naman natin na hindi natin siya sisingilin,” recalls Mel. “My wife told her very nicely, na sabi ko bawal na mag-advance.”
But the helper didn’t take the news well. “She poisoned me on the day Dedet told her that,” Mel says.
The Panabis’ plan after that fateful incident was to simply let the helper go. Dismiss her debt, give her transportation money and salary so she can go back to the province. For the safety of the kids and their elderly parents, Dedet also reported what happened to the barangay. The next day, the helper left the Panabi residence without warning.
Am I gonna die?’
Meanwhile, at the hospital, Mel was fighting for his life at the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. “When I woke up, I had a nasogastric tube (NGT) and so many IV lines—I couldn’t count,” he recalls to ANCX. He was not allowed to take anything orally, not even water. For three months, from October to December, he was on NGT and had to subsist on 500 calories a day via a nutrition formula. Because of this, Mel lost about 20 kilos from his weight.
Mel didn’t get to see the results of his endoscopy. But he recalls his wife telling him his esophagus was completely black, “like charred inihaw.”
“I burned my whole esophagus and a portion of my stomach,” Mel tells ANCX. The doctors were recommending he undergo surgery—replace his esophagus with a portion of his colon, which is the standard procedure for such a case. But Mel told them it’s not an option he wanted to take due to the significant downtime it would entail and the exorbitant cost.
Thankfully, his esophagus was able to heal after several months. But not without hassle. Part of the healing process would be swelling and inflammation. “My esophagus tends to swell and get stuck together—what the doctors call strictures. When this happens, food can’t pass through,” he wrote in his essay. From November to February, Mel had to go thru dilatations, where a tube is pushed into the esophagus to separate the parts stuck together.
Mel admits he had to deal with so much mental anguish at that time. “Hindi maaalis yung you feel hopeless, you feel helpless. You begin to think, what if this is going to be permanent? How can I live normally? On top of that, it’s the fear of it worsening,” he shares. “I was worried about myself physically, about our economic condition, and what will happen.” He was worried his condition would be so debilitating he wouldn’t be able to return to work.
Reclaiming his life
More than a year now after that terrible incident, Mel has recovered and healed well. He described the dilatation procedure as a vicious, expensive process but he’s happy it’s over. Early this year, the father of two started doing projects for different companies. And with 25 years of experience in the communications industry, he knew he could do so much more.
“I wanted the self-validation that I know what I am doing because there came a time when I also had doubts,” he admits now. “Going through something traumatic would shake up anyone’s self-confidence.” His recent appointment as business director for Red Havas, a global communications firm, came at the perfect time. Looking at Mel now, he is radiating nothing but joy and positivity.
How did the Panabis overcome this major trial in their family life? In a Facebook post, his wife Dedet says they “chose to focus on baby steps, and the child-like faith that we would somehow be led to where we were supposed to be.” On Mel’s birthday last October 8, Dedet reported: “He’s back to a healthy weight, writing and working again, and even started going back to the gym.”
The road to recovery was not easy, and there were times it was just excruciatingly painful, Dedet said. It was a good thing they held on. Able to look at the experience with a little more lightness, she wrote recently in a Facebook message: “I can almost see God winking: ‘You thought your life was over in 2020? Your life hasn’t even started.’”
Photos courtesy of Mel Panabi