Through the eyes, we imbibe with profound pleasure the beauty of a painting or sculpture and process the insights it gives. This is but one of the multitudinous benefits of sight that its loss can greatly diminish not just how we function in everyday life, but how we appreciate life in general.
It may be a rare but not altogether farfetched twist that art now helps in restoring eyesight. Prominent artists, art lovers and an eye doctor gather together to raise funds for the operation of a little eye hospital in the province of Ifugao on Feb. 3, hosted by the Manila Polo Club.
Curated by Italian gallery owner and art connoisseur Silvana Ancellotti-Diaz, a small assemblage of works by renowned artists such as National Artist Benedicto Cabrera or Bencab, Betsy Westendorp, Valeria Cavestany, Duddley Diaz, Ramon Diaz and Impy Pilapil will be put up on sale, and the proceeds will go to the projects of Restoring Sight International (RSI) and the Ophthalmological Foundation of the Philippines (OFPHIL), led by Dr. Felipe Tolentino, particularly to the operations of and treatments to be done in the newly inaugurated Ifugao State University-Ophthalmological Foundation of the Philippines (IFSU-OPHIL) Eye Center, located in the town of Alfonso Lista in Ifugao. The eye center will help not just underprivileged residents of Ifugao but of the Cordillera Administrative Region and Cagayan Valley as well.
“The impact of this project is great for the people of Ifugao and the Cagayan Valley region because it is located in an area with the highest incidence of blindness in the entire Philippines. Thousands of patients with cataract are expected to benefit from this center after several years,” said Dr. Tolentino, who is the founder of RSI.
It is said that there are more than 40,000 needy sufferers of cataract blindness in the region, and the eye center, which was inaugurated just last Jan. 26 at the Potia campus of IFSU, will be of great help to them.
Awarded the Philippine Presidential Medal of Merit in the arts in 2008, Westendorp, a Spanish painter of Dutch descent married to a Filipino and who is known for her portraits of the Filipino elite, has been very keen on the project: “This advocacy is very meaningful to me as I myself suffer from age-related macular degeneration (ARMD). It affects older adults resulting to the loss of vision in the center of the visual field. I am more than happy to be part of this fundraising project especially when Ambassador Isabel Caro Wilson broached the idea of hosting a cocktail to support Dr. Tolentino’s eye center program.”
A former ambassador to Spain and the recently installed president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Wilson is organizing the cocktail-cum-art-sale as a project also of the Manila Polo Club, in which she is also the president, the first woman to hold the position. The club celebrated its centennial last year, in 2009, and Wilson led a renewal project including the construction of a state-of-the-art kitchen, an elegant new lobby leading to the Turf Room and McKinley Room and the Banyan Garden overlooking the lobby. The art sale event will be held at the Turf Room.
“Both Betsy and I are patients of Dr. Tolentino. The IFSU-OFPHIL Eye Center in Alfonso Lista is a prime example of corporate social responsibility, and of giving back the blessings we receive to those who have less,” Wilson said.
The involvement of the personalities in this fundraising was serendipitous. A friend of Westendorp, who also had ARMD, referred Dr. Tolentino, a Filipino-American eye doctor practicing in Boston, Massachussetts in the United States and said to be the best doctor for that disease, to her. On the other hand, Dr. Tolentino often went to Madrid, where Westendorp is based, for his patients including the Spanish royal family. One time in Madrid, a common friend suggested that Westendorp help out Dr. Tolentino’s cause, and Westendorp eagerly agreed. Two years later, Dr. Tolentino wrote to Westendorp to help out in an auction.
“I don’t believe in auction because people come to buy an item for a lower price. If they believe in the charity they would buy something even it is above the usual market price,” Westendorp said.
At the same time, Wilson asked Westendorp for a painting she could buy for the Manila Polo Club, and Westendorp asked her to give the money instead to Dr. Tolentino’s project. Eventually, the art sale event came about and Westendorp thought of gathering other artists for the eye center project.
The eye center, which is the first RSI and OFPHIL eye care center outside of Metro Manila, represents the largest commitment of resources of the two humanitarian non-government agencies have ever dedicated to a single project, serving as a model for future projects of RSI.
The OFPHIL, in which Dr. Tolentino is currently president, was established in 1989 by philanthropists from the Philippines, Japan and the United States, to upgrade eye diagnostic treatments and technology and provide training to medical staff. It has partnered with RSI for outreach missions to poor communities. Established by Dr. Tolentino in 1996, RSI aims to raise funds for medical missions to the indigent blind throughout the world. Its first project, still ongoing, is focused on the Philippines. It is a way of “giving back” to his home country for Dr. Tolentino, who studied and practiced almost entirely in the United States.
“I came from a middle class family from the boondocks of Agusan,” Dr. Tolentino related. “My parents were from Luzon who migrated to find a better life in Mindanao. They started as hardworking teachers and became pioneer farmers in Agusan, clearing up the jungles there and converting them into rice land. (My) mother quit teaching to become a woman farmer while my father remained a public servant. I helped my parents worked on the land, exposing me to the value of hard work and honest labor. I helped my parents sell the products of their farm which allowed me to see the value of money, trust, integrity, dignity of labor and honesty in dealing with all kinds of people.”
He further recalled: “I am the product of World War II and learned how to survive and stay ahead of the enemy. This was a valuable lesson because the experience, though very risky, was completely enriching. Since my father was part of the guerilla movement against the Japanese Imperial Army, I was left to head the family of six children at a very early age of 11 years old, acting like the head of the family at such a young age. The family stayed in the jungles of Agusan for four years and survived in 1946. I had the satisfaction that we survived despite the lack of food and constant harassment by the enemy.”
When Tolentino was about to enter college he chose to become a doctor because an uncle is a physician who was well loved and respected and “left a very positive and deep impression on me that…I quietly told myself that I want to be physician like him.” Becoming an eye doctor he told was inspired by his professor, Dr. Germiniano de Ocampo, said to be the “father of modern Philippine ophthalmology.”
After graduating from the University of the Philippines medical school in 1957, Tolentino stayed for two years at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to specialize on eye, ear, nose and throat treatments. Then, “I felt at that time that to succeed, graduates had to specialize in the United States. In 1959, I was fortunate to land a residency training program in Rochester, New York, for two years, then to St. Louis in Missouri for one year,” he said.
Also, he got accepted at the famous Retina Associates at Harvard Medical School in Boston to train in retinal diseases. He related, “I did pioneering work in the less understood vitreous diseases which became my passion in research, resulting in new discoveries and the publication of hundreds of scientific articles as well as two definitive books based on my research work.”
He returned to the Philippines in 1966, joining the medical faculty of the University of the Philippines. Then, he explained, “I saw the disturbing clouds of trouble in 1970, forcing me to accept the invitation of my mentors at Harvard to join them at the famous Retina Associates. The decision to return to Boston was not difficult, since I foresaw the trouble ahead in the Philippines at that time. My wife strongly supported me in this decision.”
During the 1980s, there were suggestions of returning to the Philippines and helping out. In 1989, he finally did. One patient, Benita Marasigan Santos, granddaughter of Marcelo del Pilar, from Bulacan, encouraged him and said to remember the country of his birth.
His first project in the country was with the PGH, which badly needed equipment for eye treatments. After the establishment of OFPHIL, he helped establish an eye operating room at the public hospital with the generous donation of the Miyake family of Nagoya, Japan. Additionally, the organization introduced phakoemulsification cataract surgery in the country and made possible modern eye surgery training to several ophthalmology residents of the PGH. The Miyake Eye Operating Room was the beginning of the journey of giving back.
OFPHIL established a mobile eye clinic in 1995 and pioneered ambulatory cataract surgery especially to poor communities in the country in 1996, through the efforts of Dr. Jose Pecson, vice president of OFPHIL.
In 1996, Dr. Tolentino established RSI, with the mission “that no person should be needlessly blind,” which established long-term affiliation with OFPHIL. The two organizations have made several eye operation missions; established the Manila-OFPHIL Eye Center in Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Center in Tondo, Manila, in 2000; established the Asian Eye Institute at the Rockwell Center in Makati City in 2001; formed the Pediatric Eye Center at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City in 2002; and helped train eye doctors, among others.
To date, over 6,500 surgeries were done, over 42,000 patients treated and over 30 clinical missions held by the organizations. Now, the latest project is the IFSU-OFPHIL Eye Center.
Dr. Tolentino related that they had several medical missions to the province of Ifugao since 2004 because one member, Dr. Joseph Odan, is a provincial board member there. But the missions were not enough to address the overwhelming problem of eye disease in the area that a permanent eye care facility must be built.
“The Ifugao provincial government made a request to RSI to help build an eye center in Ifugao because the surgical missions being conducted several times a month have not reduced the high incidence of blindness in the region,” Dr. Tolentino explained.
The IFSU, through its president Dr. Serafin Ngohayon, offered a site in its campus in Potia, Alfonso Lista. Through the efforts of local governments and private donors, the eye center was put up, a simple two-story building with several rooms and a bulol adorning its stark white façade.
“The center will focus on cataract surgery which is the most frequent cause of blindness in the region. RSI will fully subsidize the IFSU-OFPHIL Eye Center for the first few years. As soon as the center becomes Philhealth approved, it can become self sustaining which is the ultimate goal,” Dr. Tolentino said.
He added: “The eye center will be managed by OFPHIL which has many volunteer eye doctors helping out. International doctors will be recruited soon.”
Now, the operations and treatments will be funded by the money raised by the Manila Polo Club art sale. The fund-raising event is an intimate affair with small number—13 in all—of works to be up on sale. But the art works are all masterfully done by esteemed artists led by the National Artist Bencab, fetching hefty prices. The five paintings of Westendorp alone are said to be collectively worth P2 million.
Multi-awarded and highly respected Bencab, who is based in the Cordilleras, donated a recent work of acrylic on paper, Sabel (2009, 37.5 x 27 cm./14.775 x 10.638 in.)
Westendorp’s sizable paintings, in oil and acrylic on canvas, are very recent, most especially made for the mission, depict mostly flowers, which is the subject of her latest exhibit here in the country.
Sculptor Impy Pilapil, who is versatile and works with different media, gives her Aqua Bella Series (1999, H 67 x W 56 cm./H 26.38 x W 22.05 inches) done in glass and other materials, while Ramon Diaz, husband of Sylvana, printmaker and businessman, offers Ribs, a painting of acrylic on braille paper (2007, 87 x 96.5 cm./34.278 x 38.021 in.).
Duddley Diaz, who is based in Italy and is known for his religious sculptures, has two works: Small Messenger in cast bronze (23.3 x 6 x 6 cm./9.1802 x 2.364 x 2.364 in.) and Blue Angel II in larch with acrylic (2007, 44 x 90 x 9 cm./17.336 x 35.46 x 3.546 in.). Filipino-Spanish artist Valeria Cavestany offered three paintings: China Girl (acrylic on canvas, 91.7 x 72.8 cm. /36.1298 x 28.6832 in.), To D.H. (acrylic on canvas, 86.9 x 88.7 cm. /34.2386 x 34.9478 in.) and The Blues (acrylic on wood, 109 x 69 cm./42.946 x 27.186 in.)
The greatness of these works will be enhanced now with the ability of restoring eye sights to many people, aside from giving insights and making the world more beautiful and meaningful. The artists are more than happy to help out, after all making art is itself already an advocacy and a way of giving to the world.
For his part, Dr. Tolentino said, “Like many ophthalmologists I know, I have the passion and moral obligation to help the blind. Society has been kind to me. I am happy to share what has been given to me over the years.”