By Ronnie Enriquez Baticulon, MD
It was a cramped courtroom, filled with wooden tables and benches that appeared much older and heavier than me. I suppose the weight was intentional, to prevent any plaintiff or defendant from hurling any of the benches in a moment of outrage.
I had been served a subpoena to testify in a case of frustrated murder. The plaintiff was a patient I operated on three years earlier and it was my first time to perform my civic duty as an expert witness. I picked a seat in the middle of the first row.
As a doctor who grew up reading John Grisham, the first thing I did after entering the courtroom was to try to identify the people inside. Three prisoners shackled to one other and flanked by police officers were on the bench that was flush against the wall to my left. The lawyers all seemed to be arranging and rearranging last-minute documents on the counsel’s tables just in front.
I remembered the clerk of court from our last meeting, when I showed up in time for the trial, only to find out that it had been moved to a later date a second time because the judge had to attend a convention. He asked for the correct spelling of my name before standing up to have me sign the attendance sheet. He sat in front of the witness stand, next to the court stenographer. It was comforting to know that she had not been replaced by an electronic device.
Other civilians were seated behind me and to my right. My patient and his mother were not among them. I had no way of knowing who the defendant was in their case.
Turning to me, a lawyer in polo barong said with a hint of sarcasm, “Antagal din kitang hinintay, Dok.”
I received the first subpoena duces tecum ad testificandum six months earlier. Twice I failed to attend the trial because I could not reschedule my elective surgeries.
“Sir, dalawang beses na rin po akong nagpunta, pero hindi natuloy ang hearing,” I replied.
In both instances, I was not duly notified so I ended up wasting two mornings and considerable taxi fare. In my head, I added, “Kaya quits na tayo, hindi ba?” but what I said, in a continuing attempt to be polite, was, “Sino po kayo?”
On the wall just above the heads of the prisoners was a sign requesting to turn off cellular phones, with a warning that a PhP 200 fine would be imposed for its violation. I would rather pay the fine than miss an urgent call about a patient from any of my consultants or co-residents, so I switched my phone to vibrate mode instead.
“All rise!” the court of clerk announced as the judge entered the room. Her face was radiant and her hair tied neatly in a bun. She could have easily been the mother of a classmate, one who would invite me and other friends to their home for lunch she cooked herself.
The judge, the clerk of court, and stenographer then began to recite the ecumenical prayer. ”Almighty God, we stand in Your holy presence as our Supreme Judge…” the prayer began. Earlier, I noticed a copy of the prayer posted next to the cellular phone warning. I was surprised that prayer was part of court protocol, and wondered if any other country did the same.
The clerk proceeded to the roll call of cases to be tried on that day.
“We are ready your honor,” the prosecutor said when our case was called. “We have a government witness,” he said, acknowledging my presence.
As I listened to the exchange of statements between the judge and the lawyers, I tried to make sense of the legal jargon, relying mostly on what I had read from John Grisham’s novels.
In Medicine, one tries to be as concise as possible when narrating clinical information. It has always seemed to me that the converse is preferred in Law.
Everything was alien. Arraignment, motion, and bail were all too different from nerve, seizure, and bipolar. I only vaguely remember a lecture in medical school about a physician’s duties and responsibilities as an expert witness: what to bring, what to say, and how to say it. Even with my white coat on, I waited with a fair amount of apprehension.
I was called to take the witness stand first, a relief because I still needed to go back to the hospital to operate on a patient in the afternoon.
After being sworn in by the clerk of court, the prosecutor began to ask his questions. It was a case of severe head injury, and my patient was allegedly mauled by the defendant, causing multiple blood clots and brain swelling that would warrant my operating on him a week later. I made the mistake of saying the diagnosis as a doctor would write in a patient’s chart, so I was interrupted by the judge and asked to explain my findings in layperson’s terms.
That English was the preferred language during the trial was also unexpected. Many times I was tempted to speak in Filipino so that more people in the room would understand how the injury sustained by my patient could be fatal, but I was too timid to ask the judge if I could, so I continued to answer questions in English.
It was humbling to see the judge paying close attention to what I was saying, taking down notes throughout my testimony. When she spoke to clarify points, her voice was almost inappropriately pleasant. The courtroom belonged to her, after all, as an operating room did to its surgeon.
Halfway through my testimony, my patient and his mother entered the courtroom. I kept on speaking as if I did not notice them.
The prosecutor held up a copy of my patient’s chart.
“Is this your handwriting, Dr. Baticulon?” Even from afar I easily recognized the perfectly aligned capital letters slanting to the right. My handwriting always pretended to be legible, I would say. Had he exhibited the original chart, which I brought with me, the words indicating my diagnosis and operation would have stood out even more, having been written in my preferred blue ink.
“Yes, it is.”
Having examined and treated hundreds of patients in the last four and a half years, I could not remember all the details of my history and physical examination for this patient. It was a good thing that I would always write down important details in my clinical notes. It saved me from the embarrassment of having to answer, “Sorry, your honor. I do not remember” all the time.
But I did forget to write one thing.
The defense attorney pointed out one detail in the patient’s clinical abstract. In the box for clinical history, it was indicated that the patient was intoxicated when he got into a fight with the defendant.
“Was it you who wrote the clinical history?” he asked.
“No sir, it was the medical intern.”
“So did you know that your patient was intoxicated when he was mauled?”
“I am not sure.”
“For this patient, do you remember asking the mother if his son was drunk when the incident happened?”
“I might have asked, because I always do a comprehensive history and physical examination on my patients before I operate on them. But sorry, I do not remember.”
Towards the end of my testimony, the prosecutor asked, “So is your patient’s head injury consistent with being banged on the wall?”
“What do you mean consistent? It is possible.”
“The question was, ‘Is it consistent?’” the judge interrupted once more.
“Well, if you want me to tell you that my patient’s head injury is definitely due to his head being banged against the wall, I cannot say for certain. But if you’re asking, can his head injury be explained by that mechanism, then I would say yes.”
The judge nodded, and after that I was thanked and excused.
While I was waiting for my certificate of appearance just outside the courtroom, I realized that I might have just helped convict a person of frustrated murder. I narrated the circumstances as I remembered them, gave the numbers, and laid down the facts. But was the defendant really at fault? At the pace this trial was going (the supposed crime was committed three years ago), I think the court would not be able to come up with an answer anytime soon. That wasn’t my problem anymore, was it?
My patient’s mother exited the courtroom and walked to where I was waiting.
“Dok, maraming salamat ha. Ikaw na lang talaga ang pag-asa namin ng anak ko. Masamang tao talaga ‘yun. May binaril pa nga ‘yun sa amin. Tatawa-tawa lang nung sinabi naming magdedemanda kami.”
“Naku, wala po iyon, ‘Nay.”
She explained that the defendant tried to settle the case with them, but she and her son refused. Her son, who used to work in construction, had not been able to go back to work since his surgery. I told her that he could, if he wanted to, so that he would not have to settle with feeding poultry and earning a measly income.
“Kain muna tayo, Dok,” she offered.
I politely refused for fear that people might see us and brand me a biased witness. I thanked her before saying goodbye, knowing that I would see her and my patient again in the outpatient clinic. Perhaps then we could have our lunch.
On the bus going back to the hospital, I felt a certain relief I was a doctor rather than a lawyer. I would not last long in the legal profession. Dealing with life and death is much less complicated and much more fulfilling than deciding between right and wrong.
Dr. Ronnie Baticulon is a neurosurgery resident, teacher, and writer. He blogs at http://ronibats.ph
VitalSigns Issue 63 Vol. 3, May 1-31, 2014