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Rudy Fernandez: Life’s a wonderful thing

May 14, 2008 21:09:00
Emmie G. Velarde
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Life is not a battle. I love it; I want more of it. That’s all I ask, just a little more.”

There was neither desperation nor urgency in the voice of actor Rudy “Daboy” Fernandez; it was a matter-of-fact laying of cards on the table. He had no time to indulge, he said, in anything remotely “dramatic” or “negative.” Time is gold, now more than ever.

We were in the sitting room of his White Plains residence. “When I was still having chemotherapy,” he said, “after every infusion, I would just lie here and try to watch TV, which was the only thing I could do for about three or four days. I’d be very, very weak. And when that side-effect started to wane, it would be time for another session. So I had practically no other activity. I’ve memorized, I think, every corner of this room, every show on Channels 2 and 7.”

Then, finding the precise description, he blurted out, “Low-bat!” He could laugh about it now. Today, he seemed fully charged and cheerful. And chatty. It was a Sunday afternoon, April 27. He and his wife, Lorna “LT” Tolentino, were set to leave for the US the day after, for the next round of a revolutionary gene therapy.

Alarming news

The action star has stage IV peri-ampullary cancer, a relentless adversary. Last Monday, local show biz media were gripped by alarming news that Daboy’s condition was critical. Text messages flew, fast and furious. The one that Inquirer Entertainment received from LT, from the Cardinal Santos Medical Center in San Juan, was characteristically calm: “Rudy is slowly improving. He had surgery called PTBD—percutaneous transhepatic billiary drainage.” She asked for prayers, as usual.

Periampullary cancer is “an enlargement of the ducts from the liver and pancreas where they enter the small intestines,” according to Medical Observer, one of two trade magazines that had Rudy on the cover of their March issues.

The last US trip was supposed to be for a month, enough time for a full round of the gene therapy called Rexin-G.

LT’s SMS was, therefore, not entirely reassuring. It said they had stayed in the US for only four days, and that it was found that Rudy had an obstruction in his billary duct. They had come home and gone straight to the CSMC the morning of Sunday, May 4. “We are still here,” the text message said. On the Monday evening news, one of Daboy’s devoted buddies, Sen. Bong Revilla, gave a statement wearing very dark glasses that did little to hide his anxiety. “He’s in pain,” the senator said of his dear friend.

Rare gift

To think that, only two weeks ago, Rudy had given Inquirer Entertainment what, in his condition, was a rare and precious gift of conversation.

“Many things have changed,” he told us. “Obviously, I can’t do everything I used to do — I can’t work, for one. But many good things happened, too.”

When his ailment was diagnosed at stage I in March 2006, he immediately underwent Whipple operation, a procedure named after American surgeon Allen O. Whipple, who devised it in the 1930s. It is a major, highly delicate procedure (10 hours) that involves removing parts of the pancreas, bile duct, gall bladder and duodenum, then suturing together the remaining bile duct-intestine connection.

Rudy and LT were told that many patients had gone on to live many years after the operation. And, indeed, the actor bounced back. “Maganda ’yung recuperation ko. I even did two teleseryes for GMA 7 — ‘Atlantika’ and ‘Now and Forever.’”

But the cancer came back in early 2007. Rudy explains, “Any recurrence, stage 4 agad, automatically. They found two lumps in my liver, and another near the pancreas.”

He was discussing all this like he was talking of another person. At times he would stop for about two seconds, not at a loss for words, but as though to consider the subject from another angle.

“What I have is the rarest among the rare types of cancer,” he proceeded. “In the Philippines, there are only three protocols (loosely, drug combination) of chemotherapy. “The first one didn’t work for me. I shifted to a different formulation, which worked for a while. The third one, I simply refused, because one side effect is acne all over the face. And if you don’t break out, it means the protocol is not working. I told my doctor that I didn’t want to die miserable.”

Clinical trial

He added, laughing now, “I’d die anyway, so why should I have to undergo that? I’d rather go happy, looking good. Imagine me in my coffin, unrecognizable because of the acne? So they found something else for me.”

It was Rexin-G. Rudy, 55, was “accepted” for the clinical trials in a US hospital. In the Philippines, he said, it was an approved treatment (at Asian Hospital in Muntinlupa), and that foreigners came here for it, although it’s “very expensive.”

He described it, thus: “It’s not chemo, it has no side effects — ‘targeted’ kasi, meaning, it finds only the cancer cells. I started on Rexin-G in February. I think it’s working.” Lorna herself noted the vast improvement on Rudy’s complexion. (The latest trip was supposedly for his third Rexin-G regimen.)

Rudy was talking, in the very least, like an efficient nurse’s aide. Lorna, he said, was much better at it. “What I know is really just 50 percent of what she does.”

He clarified that he wasn’t hoping to “go back to normal.” He was willing to try anything that worked, he said, because he was, by nature, a “positive” person. “But I realize that everything I’m doing is just to prolong my life. Plus, maybe to lend some quality to it. I’d like to be able to travel some more; I don’t mind not being able to work. Of course, I also want a little more time with my family and friends. Okey na ’yon.”

Right now, he wanted to go back to the first question: “How had his life changed since getting sick?”

“Life is a wonderful thing, and now I can say I have really seen the beauty of it. I have a good family — mabuting asawa, mababait na anak. And so many friends! Nadagdagan pa yata. In church, strangers would approach me and say they’re always praying for me. Siguro naman, ’di sila nambobola, kasi nasa simbahan kami.”

We asked, what about other things that people who are forced to slow down suddenly notice, like the sunrise, the sunset? This was met with a hearty laugh, like it was... maybe a stupid question? “Naku, matagal ko nang ina-appreciate ang mga ’yan!”

One oncologist gave Rudy a life expectancy of six months from the time the cancer recurred. “Pinalitan ko siya agad,” he said. “Ayoko ng gano’n e. See? It’s been more than a year since then.”

Happily, he has found unique opportunities to give back the kindness he has been receiving from strangers. “Some friends would call at times, asking me to talk to people they know who are sick like me, but who, unlike me, are always depressed. So I do that, I talk to those people on the phone for about 30 minutes. I say, don’t think only of your sickness, or of how long your doctor says you are going to live. I say that I myself let only the Lord decide when to take me. Meanwhile, kung binigyan ka ng Panginoon ng isang taon, magpapakalungkot ka pa ba? Sayang naman, e di isang buwan na lang, tutal malungkot ka naman, papahabain mo pa.”

A few times, too, Daboy was invited to speak to gatherings, including a group of doctors. “Hindi ako mahilig do’n e,” he said. “Baka pag sinabi kong hindi ako natatakot mamatay, mapagbintangan pa akong mayabang. At ano naman ang sasabihin ko sa mga doktor, e hindi pa nga ako magaling?”

What he often did these days that he didn’t do much before his affliction, he said, was stay home. “Paikot-ikot lang ako rito. And my friends and family take turns visiting —kanya-kanyang araw sila.”

‘Dramatic’ friend

The curious thing, Rudy noted, was that he usually found himself making them feel better about his situation. “Lalo na ’yang si Jinggoy (Estrada, another senator-actor buddy). Pag nakikita ako, nalulungkot. Ano ’yon e, dramatic. Iyakin. Pero lahat ng kaibigan ko, lalong bumait.”

He had to relate one “hilarious” day with them: “LT and I had just come from Hong Kong, where I had a PET-CT scan. Bong, Jinggoy and Ipe (actor Phillip Salvador) came with us to my doctor. The prognosis was not good. That night, we all met again at the wake of Erap’s (former President Joseph Estrada, Jinggoy’s father) cardiologist, Dr. Lorenzo Hocson. Bong asked how I was feeling. I said I was okay. He didn’t believe me. The third time he asked, I said I wasn’t afraid to die, but that I was a little sad. Pero may solusyon do’n, I told him. ‘Dadalawin ko kayo palagi!” The reaction to his little prank was instantaneous. “Pare, p......., ’wag mong gagawin ’yan.” He said only Ipe did not protest.

Daboy, quite the raconteur, had stood up, the better to tell that story. When he stopped laughing (again), he said, “Walang halong bola. I do not fear death. But I’m afraid of pain. I don’t like needles. All things considered, I feel lucky that, at least, I know I’m on my way, mauuna ako sa iba.”

He’s been asked if he ever questioned his fate. “I tell them, no, no. God’s been very good to me. Tinanggap ko agad ito, kahit ibang klaseng laban. Ang buhay, hindi ’yan battle. Gustong-gusto ko nga ng buhay e.”

Not that he had an unfinished to-do list. What about, like, see the children of his younger kids Rap, 24, and Renz, 22? (Mark Anthony, his eldest son with Alma Moreno, has two.) Daboy’s simple response: “Wala akong mga trip na ganyan. I don’t think of that.”

Positive outcome

Something he had thought of was, maybe he had done some people wrong. “I say to myself, if I see this person or that, baka nabugbog ko, o anuman, I will apologize. That is not very likely though, so I just pray that they forgive me. As for some people who have wronged me, I have forgiven them.”

Had he actually picked up the phone to call anyone of those people? “I don’t know where they are,” he said. “And I wouldn’t apologize to all of them naman.”

Definitely one positive thing has come out of the harrowing experience. “Na-appreciate ko lalo ang asawa ko. We are truly living our wedding vows. ’Yung ‘in sickness and in health...’ lalong tumingkad. Mabait talaga si LT, pero mas bumait pa siya. I didn’t expect all this from her. If she had done less for me than she is doing now, it would still be more than I probably deserve.”

The very thought visibly hit a spot, and Daboy’s eyes welled up. “When I had my Whipple operation, one month ako sa hospital, one month siyang hindi umuwi. Lumalabas lang ng Cardinal Santos para mag- ‘Startalk’ (her Sunday talk show on GMA 7). She’s been hands-on from the start. ’Yung support niya, superlative degree.”

Jinggoy, Bong and Ipe were in the operating room during the surgery, he recounted. “Spoiled na spoiled ako.”

Still, it was no picnic, Rudy recalled, even with the steady stream of visiting friends and relatives. “I was in the ICU for six days. I even vomited blood. At one point, I actually prayed, ‘Lord, ang hirap naman nito. Pagalingin mo na ako. Pero kung oras ko na, kunin mo na ako.”

Even so, Daboy didn’t remember becoming short-tempered at any point. “I don’t think so, but ask LT.”

(She would oblige later on, when Rudy wasn’t listening: “There are times, yes. Ako rin naman e. Siyempre when you’re in pain, or very tired... but I feel I don’t have the right to be sad or irritable. I need to be strong. I need my mind to be clear, to focus on him.”)

LT not prepared

Rudy remembered one instance, when he received news that the cancer had metastasized and, “Nag-drama ako ng mga two days.”

Friends had rushed over to pray over him, he recalled, led by Tirso Cruz III. “Si Pipo,” Rudy said, “ang galing magbasa ng Bible. I like listening to him. Kung ako lang, hindi ako mahilig.”

Given that he was always tired, he said, he had stopped going to his Christian community, the Oasis of Love. “But I hear Mass on Sunday, and my conversations with God have become more intense,” he said. “Kasi nga, malapit na akong pumunta sa Kanya. Matagal ko nang alam na matapang ako, pero di ko akalain na handa na akong humarap sa Panginoon.”

“I’m not prepared for that,” LT said, rather emphatically. “For me, it is a fight as well. But of course I also end up saying, ‘Thy will be done.’”

Everyone’s doing his part, she said. Rap and Renz have become homebodies (“They just ask their friends to hang out here.”). Mark comes over as often as possible, with his 9-year-old daughter Chelsea, whom Lolo Rudy is very fond of.

LT sees that they all draw strength from one another, including Rudy, and considers it her job to keep the exchange working to their advantage. “Pag nakikita ko siyang medyo teary-eyed, hindi ko sya pwedeng sabayan. At any given time, dapat may isang malakas. If anyone falls apart, may domino effect ’yun e.”

Once, when they were alone after one gloomy consultation with a doctor in the US, Rudy told her, “Don’t cry, ha?”

“Sabi ko, basta ’wag ka rin iiyak. But I feel that, until now, he does cry when he’s alone and I don’t see it. Ako rin.”

If Rudy has his friends, LT does, too. She knows they’re there when she needs them, old friends who have stood the test of time. “Sina Amy (Perez), Gina (Alajar)... marami sila... si Sharon, lahat ng klaseng support they extend to me — lahat. Sharon begs off from visiting if the situation is not so good. But she will call to say she will come when she’s sure she’s not going to cry.”

The no-drama “rule” among friends was being enforced, LT explained, because it had previously been proven that the cancer got more aggressive whenever Rudy’s morale dropped.

On Tuesday evening, the latest message from LT to Inquirer read: “Each day, he is giving his best fight.”

Not too long ago, on that Sunday afternoon in White Plains, the scenario was the opposite of struggle.

Rudy was enthusiastically filling up his plate with merienda fare, recounting yet another hilarious moment with his three buddies:

“Napapag-usapan lang naman — ’yung iba pang mga kaibigan namin, ’yung may memorial plans na, humahaba ang buhay! Si Dolphy, halimbawa, pumili na ng casket niya. Si President Erap, may nitso na … ang lakas-lakas nila pareho, ’di ba? So sabi ko, ‘Prepare na rin kaya tayo?’”

Then one last time, after two hours of laughter and reminiscences, he lent himself to a pensive pause: “Paminsan-minsan, iniisip ko, pa’no kaya ang mga anak ko, ang mga apo ko, kung wala na ako?”

We wanted to know, of course: Then what happens? He smiled broadly. “Tingin ko, kaya nila.”

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