Dr. Sally Gatchalian’s bright and cheerful presence could fill an entire room. Her love and caring encompassed everyone she met. There was not a single soul she met who did not love her. From her patients and their families, to her mentees, colleagues, friends and family — they loved her all. She was also one of the brightest lights of paediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases. On March 26th, that light was snuffed out by the very disease she was protecting so many against.

But I think the lights have been dimmed only momentarily. For Doc Sally, as she was popularly known, left so much love and a legacy that will defy even death.

Descended from the Rodriguez clan of San Marcelino, Zambales. The late actor, Miguel Rodriguez was also her second cousin. From an early age, you could already tell that she would be legendary. Her cousin, Michael Rodriguez recalls how as young boy, he would be so in awe of her presence and her beauty. “We would spend our summers in Zambales. She was very beautiful, very fair, almost blonde. What always struck me was her ease with everyone, even with the common folk.”  

Doc Sally was one of the older cousins in the Rodriguez family. Always very sociable and the life of the party. Michael recalls, “What I remember distinctly is her proficiency in Ilocano, this beautiful woman belting it out in Ilocano.” 

After high school in St. Paul, she went to the University of Philippines for medicine. Graduating with the UPCM class of 1977, she eventually went on to become one of leading lights in the field of paediatrics infectious diseases. At the time of her passing, she was president of the Philippine Pediatrics Society, and was Assistant Director at the RITM. In spite of her stature in the profession, Doc Sally was humble, very caring and supportive of her younger colleagues.

In the words of one of her mentees, pediatric dieases specialist, Dr. Jing Aro, “From the moment I began my training in Pediatrics,

there was so much admiration. She was the epitome of beauty and brains with a very big andgenerous heart. Her achievements and titles were

intimidating, yet ma’am Sally never made me feel that she was up there and I was a nobody. She was always giving. When I had doubts, she lifted me up. She took me into her team despite my lack of experience

and inadequacies. She molded and trained me. When others would have feelings of uncertainty in my capabilities, she was always there to give confidence and assurance that I can make it.”

“Ma’am Sally was as great as she was humble,as beautiful on the outside as she was inside. As famous for her expertise as for her caring heart,” begins Dr. Carmen Nievera, one of her mentees who eventually became one of her closest friends too. 

She recalls how Doc Sally would go the extra mile always in support of her young colleagues. “When I started my practice as a pediatric Infectious disease specialist, one of my very first patients was the grandson of a senator. It was a case of dengue, and although technically I knew how to manage the case, I found myself second guessing every decision because of the “VIPs” in front of me. Ma’am Sally traveled across Metro Manila and went to my hospital, talked to the VIP and said something to the effect that they were in very good hands and quite lucky to have me as their physician. I was overwhelmed by this gesture – how such a great lady (she was already a famous doctor then) would literally travel so many miles to support me (a “nobody” in the hierarchy of MDs). Her support was consistent and unwavering. Through the years, she was always there for me – no qualms, no airs, no big deal – just a ready “yes” for things great and small.” 

Doc Sally’s kindness extended not just to her colleagues, but to the other people who worked with her at various points during her stellar career. She was never one to stand for bullying or unjust practices. She was the medical director of Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) for many years. While there, GSK’s publication relations consultant, Jeff Tan, remembers an incident when Doc Sally came to his rescue. 

“I will never forget the time when she defended me against a government official who raised his voice at me in a restaurant because he got irritated with what I said. She could have just ignored it because intervening could have compromised her professional relationship with the person and jeopardise her advocacy projects but still she went up to the guy and defended me.That’s Doc Sally.”

One of her dearest friends, Dr. May Montellano says that she will always remember Doc Sally for her unpretentious ways. “Dozing off in the middle of conferences and meetings, fanning herself with her skirt whenever it was hot, and licking her fingers whenever she ate her favorite chicken barbeque. Sally was passionate, vibrant, and full of joie de vivre, but most of all Sally was prayerful. She always asked to be blessed before a lecture, imploring the Lord’s guidance and wisdom. No matter how great she had become as a physician, Sally was first and foremost a humble servant of God.” 

Dr. Lulu Bravo, Doc Sally’s BFF was, and still is devastated by her loss. In a letter to her colleagues, she writes, “I read and listened about finding meaning to our grief and soon I realized that perhaps we could raise and lend our voices to supporting the call for greater protection of our health care workers and call for more generous contribution of protective measures and equipment in hospitals as well as continuing the fight against COVID and other infectious diseases thru education and communication. Let’s all work together to do this as her legacy and in her honor. This work has begun and everyone can be part of this.This is how we can find the meaning of her death!” 

In spite of all her achievements, Doc Sally was proudest and most devoted of all to her family. Her husband, Dr. Ed Gatchalian, her children Gayle and Geoff, and all her siblings – Cindoy, Ruby, Raffy, and Cecile. When I chatted briefly with Ruby, who was very close to her Manang Sally because they were the only ones left here in the Philippines, this is what she had to say, “There will never be a time when her memory will not cross my mind and that will make me smile. She was my travel buddy, BFF, co-conspirator, frenemy, and K-Drama addict. She never treated me as a younger sister, more like an equal. Whenever we would travel together and because she would always go on business class, and there were times that I couldn’t, she and I would meet in the middle. She would say, “Basta magkatabi tayo para ma massage ko legs at kamay mo.” Manang Sally, one of these days, I know you’re going to pick me up. Business class, ok? Love you, Manang. Until we meet again.”

This column appeared on Sunday, March 29, 2020 in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s INQPlus under the Lifestyle section

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