HOURS before First Gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo almost faced the call of death last April 9 due to a heart complication initially mistaken as gastritis, heart surgeon Dr. Rommel Cariño was shopping along with his wife at Glorietta. Upon receiving a call that he was needed to save the President’s husband, he immediately hailed a taxi to St. Luke’s Medical Center.

As soon as Cariño reached the Hospital, he checked Arroyo’s Computed Tomography scan and found out that Arroyo was suffering from aortic aneurysm, a condition where swelling in the aorta occurs and a risk of rupture can lead to death.

“Fifty percent of the patients can die within the first 48 hours, one of the nightmares of heart surgeons since the tissues are fragile and can rupture any time,” Cariño said.

Despite surgery being a risky option, Cariño gave it a shot. Together with an assistant surgeon and two trainees, he spearheaded Arroyo’s open-heart surgery that very same day.

“Surgery for aortic aneurysm entails a very difficult and complicated process,” he said. The patient has to be frozen to stop blood circulation by attaching him to a heart-lung machine and temperature regulator, a process that endangers the vital organs.

“I froze the first gentleman for about one hour and 40 minutes while doing my operation,” said Cariño, head of the Cardiovascular-Thoracic training center at the Philippine Heart Center (PHC) and section chief of the Valvular Surgery at St. Luke’s.

After 10 hours inside the operating room, the surgery turned out to be a success. Although Arroyo experienced kidney failure, it was easily remedied by dialysis. The First Gentleman was back after being discharged from SLMC last May 1.

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Cariño credits the successful operation not only to his skills but also to his faith, something that UST taught him. Before he began his operation, Cariño said he called his wife and mother and told them to pray for Arroyo.

“When you know that somebody is praying behind you, you cannot go wrong,” Cariño said. “When you know that somebody is guiding you, it’s like all your decisions are correct.”

Although operating on the First Gentleman drew the country’s attention, Cariño said he was not affected by it at all. In fact, at the time of the operation, he recalls being watched by two presidents—President Macapagal-Arroyo and hospital president Jose F.G. Ledesma. Despite his VIP audience, he did not feel daunted.“What is important is that I keep my focus. There’s no room for discomposure in surgery,” he said.

UST life

Cariño graduated from UST in 1978. He had taken up BS General as his pre-med.

Even though 29 years has passed since he graduated, he still adores his alma mater, owing happy memories to it, specially to the Main Building.

“For me, it is the most beautiful building in UST. Whenever I pass by the University, I always tell my children that I was in that very building from 1974 to 1978,” he said.

Cariño was accepted as an intern in the UST Hospital (USTH) in 1982. He was one of the 50 or 60 fortunate students who were given the opportunity and it was also during this time when he realized where his true calling lies: General Surgery. But since the department only accepted four to five new residents, he became worried of his chances of getting in.

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Cariño, who was a pre-fellow then at USTH, applied at the Ospital ng Maynila (OM) where he was accepted. With an opportunity at hand too good to waste, he dropped his pre-fellowship. “I can no longer wait for another year without doing anything,” he said. “So I accepted the offer of OM for me to become a resident.”

During his early years at OM, he reported for duty every other day until he became the chief resident of the Department of Surgery. Eventually, the hospital became his new “home.”

“When you become the chief resident, you cannot go home. You can neither go and see your family nor can you go to the mall,” said Cariño, who was voted the Most Outstanding Resident during his entire five-year tenure at OM.

Even after his many years of training, he felt that the knowledge and experience he acquired was not enough. Influenced by his consultant in Thoracic Surgery, Cariño applied at the PHC’s Cardiovascular-Thoracic Surgery program where he trained for three years.

“I applied for adult surgery and luckily, I was the only one left at that time so all the cases were designated to me,” he said.

Despite the long and rigorous training Cariño had already undergone, he was still unsatisfied that he planned to practice abroad to further broaden his experience.

Upon sharing these thoughts with Dr. Esperanza Cabral, then director of PHC, he was introduced to George Garcia of the Washington Hospital Center (WHC) where he was offered a one-year special fellowship.

He finished his WHC training, which was funded by the Makati Heart Foundation, in 1993. Only then did Cariño begin his practice, a start that soon enough led him to become the First Gentleman’s lifesaver. Ayn Rand I. Parel and Tanya Justine R. Baldovino

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