Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An altered life

published in the Manila Standard Today, page A5, 01 February 2012

Twenty-year-old John Seth Cerillo watches a movie on cable tv at their home in Gatchalian Village in Las Pinas City. It’s either this or go online. But the Internet service is particularly slow that day so he could not surf. He could not do anything else much.

Seth is not in school anymore. For the past six years, and progressively, he has been nursing fever of up to 42 degrees Celsius. His tremors, once only in the hands but now have moved down to his legs, have become more frequent and debilitating. He always feels like he has lost his balance.

He was not like this before. Seth was an ordinary 14-year-old before his life changed drastically. He used to enjoy school and extra-curricular activities. He was into swimming, taekwondo and basketball. He was part of the choir and then became a sacristan.

All this changed when one Thursday, on 16 February 2006, his freshman science teacher brought a beaker containing the element mercury and asked the class to pass it around. According to Seth, the beaker had no lid. Their teacher told them to wash their hands after playing with the substance. The class was held in an air-conditioned room.

About 90 students belonging to two freshman sections were exposed to the chemical.

The following day, half the class was absent; the children complained of fever and vomiting. Seth eventually started to itch and developed fever and rashes. Doctors from the Philippine General Hospital—who had been called in after it was established that there had been a toxic spill at that Catholic school in Paranaque—had warned him and his classmates that this was likely to happen.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages a person’s nerves. It affects those exposed to it differently— some slightly, some severely, some immediately, others after many years.

The children who exhibited symptoms of mercury poisoning were given chelation treatment at the PGH, to expunge the chemical from their bodies. A massive cleanup was done; the school was closed for months.

For Seth, however, closure remains elusive.

For the rest of 2006, when there was close government and media attention on the school, everything seemed all right. After the cleanup, the school re-opened in June 2006. It promised to shoulder the affected children’s medical expenses and reimburse their medicine. For Seth, who missed half of his second year education due to absences, there were modules designed to keep him abreast of his lessons even while he was confined at home. Occasionally, teachers dropped by to inquire how he was doing.

Seth seemed to be the exception— all other kids who had been exposed to the chemical had recovered. Or, if they were feeling anything odd, for some reason they had decided to stay quiet.

Juliette, Seth’s mother, could not afford to be quiet. She saw how her son’s health had deteriorated, so much so that he was only able to attend one school day of his junior year and was asked to repeat it the next year. She also saw that as the years went by, the school became less willing to help them defray Seth’s medical expenses, which had been increasing rapidly. “You could feel it when you walk into their offices, how they look at you, it’s like they are saying ‘here comes this woman again, asking for money again.’ They question my receipts if these are related to the poisoning. But did I want this to happen to my son?” Juliet says. There were no succeeding modules that came their way, either.

On the day before the expiration of the prescription period for the filing of civil cases, or on February 15, 2010, the Cerillos filed a case for damages against the school and against the teacher. They asked for at least P6 million. “We would have gone to mediation, but in those talks, only the lawyer of the school would meet us, making an offer that is way below what we think Seth needs. There was nobody from the school’s Board of Trustees, its decision makers,” Juliette says.

“The school says it is charity on their part,” adds Seth. “They have never once acknowledged that they had some responsibility for what happened. But this was not an accident because it could have been prevented had the teacher known better.”

The lawsuit was heavily criticized. The school, interviewed in 2010 by another newspaper, said it felt betrayed by the Cerillos’ decision since it had been helping Seth with his expenses anyway. A social group was set up on Facebook by some of the school’s students in protest of the civil case. The Facebook page contains some nasty comments—“[cursing Seth]. Bakit hindi ka pa natuluyan? (Why didn’t you die?)” Another fellow liked this post. Yet another said “Mukhang pera lang yan (He is just after the money)!” “Nanghihingi ng 6M (Asking for P6 million?) WTF!?!”

Seth does need the money—now and more so in the future. Between 2006 and today, his condition has worsened. He has been diagnosed with neuropathy (brain and nerve damage), Parkinsonism, and his immune system is failing so that he easily contracts infections of whatever kind.

While he became eligible for college through the school’s Alternative Learning System program and tried pursuing his dream of becoming a civil engineer, Seth found out early enough he could not attend his classes regularly. He shifted to entrepreneurship (“because face it, no employer is going to hire him with his condition,” says Juliette. “He has to be his own boss who can rest when he needs to”) but encountered the same problem. So now Seth spends one day after another at home—except when he goes to the Manila Doctors Hospital to see his toxicologist and neurologist.

concluded next week

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