He trained in the United States, and the lure of a successful medical practice seemed well-paved for him in the land of milk and honey. Yet, he decided to give up his green card and return to the Philippines to practice. In return, he became the Father of Child Psychiatry in the country and a highly respected authority in this seemingly uncharted and still misunderstood field of medicine.
By Ma. Teresa C. Dumana
Photo by Jermaine So-Reyes
HIS parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but he had other things on his mind. He says that he dreamt of becoming a journalist, yet he chose to be a doctor—eventually a psychiatrist. Like many of our successful doctors, Dr. Cornelio G. Banaag was given the opportunity to study and work in the United States. However, his heart belongs to his homeland where he chose to stay and practice.
Intrigued by human behavior
“Psychiatry is a very intriguing, interesting field in medicine. A long time ago when we didn’t know very much about the brain yet, it was all mind, that’s why we used to call it mental disorders,” explains Dr. Banaag. “Now, we know that they’re not just mental, they’re not just disorders of the mind but also disorders in the brain functioning.”
Dr. Banaag says that his interest in psychiatry was hugely connected with his fascination with human behavior. “The principal subject of psychiatry is human behavior. Particularly in its abnormal aspects, the deviation in the malfunctioning or maladjustments of normal behavior. To be able to understand all of that, you need to have a good understanding of what normal behavior is,” he says.
In high school, when teens usually read comic books and novels, Dr. Banaag had started on Sigmund Freud. He admits that even if he didn’t fully understand Freud and the workings of psychology at that time, he had already brushed up on a lot of books that dealt with human behavior. On a nostalgic note, he shares, “I was reading psychology in high school. I would go to the public library in Sampaloc in Manila and I’d end up closing the library with the librarian ringing the bell saying ‘Time to go, we’re closing shop’. I think human behavior is very intriguing, very interesting.”
Years after high school and upon graduating from the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1963, an experience Dr. Banaag will never forget forged psychiatry in his life. “I was at the National Center for Mental Health which used to be called the National Mental Hospital. I was exposed to the conditions of the mentally ill, the psychiatrically ill, and I thought, someone will have to treat them,” he recalls. He thought that those suffering from psychiatric or mental disorders will not be helped by simply talking to them or through psychological intervention. And so he thought of going into psychiatry.
Perseverance pays off
“One of my traits is if I define this is what I really want, I go for it. I may not get it now, next year, in two years, but I will get it one day. So I don’t lose my focus on the things I really want,” says Dr. Banaag.
What started out as an interest in human behavior soon became a passion for Dr. Banaag. A frustrated pediatrician, his deep interest in children led him to study child psychiatry. He says, “By the time I graduated there was no clear established discipline in child psychiatry. It was very late in coming; it became an official discipline in the United States where it began in 1959. So by the time I graduated in 1963, the discipline was just four- years-old.” Dr. Banaag says that he was troubled to see children and teenagers hallucinating or experiencing depression and anxiety. He vowed to one day establish child psychiatry in the Philippines to be able to help these children recover. And just like any new and unfamiliar concept, Dr. Banaag found it challenging to put up this foreign discipline. “The biggest challenge for me was how to develop a child psychiatry program in the country. In Asia, there was hardly any child psychiatry,” he admits.
However, Dr. Banaag proved that once he focuses on one thing, he will try to get it no matter how long it takes. When Filipinos caught wind of Dr. Banaag’s clinic, they immediately started going to him for consultations. He narrates that ever since he started, way back in the 1970’s, he has held clinic hours for 12 hours from Monday to Saturday.
“I see children, teenagers, adolescents, young children, suffering from various kinds of disorders of emotions, feelings, perceptions, behavior, and I provide the diagnosis and the treatment,” Dr. Banaag explains.
Going beyond his clinic
However, he does not constrict himself in his clinics. “On the side, a major part of what I do is teaching. I have been with the University of the Philippines since I graduated.” Upon graduation, he was given the post of assistant instructor, then instructor, then assistant professor, associate professor, until he became a full professor. When he retired in 2001, he was granted the title professor emeritus.
In the 2005 centennial celebration of the UP College of Medicine, Dr. Banaag was acknowledged as one of the 17 outstanding professors in its 100-year history. Something that he says has deeply humbled him.
Father of Child Psychiatry
One other thing that keeps Dr. Banaag busy with is the training of child psychiatrists in the country. For him, having trained hundreds of psychiatrists is his biggest accomplishment in the field. “I’ve been involved in training since I came back in 1971 and every year we graduate psychiatrists. I feel particularly pleased that I have become part of their training,” he says.
Peers and colleagues acknowledge Dr. Banaag as the “Father of Child Psychiatry” in the country. He practically molded the science and the practice of this specialty from scratch. He helped set-up the training program in child psychiatry at the UP-PGH in 1982. And then in 1991, he set up another one at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center.
Everyone acknowledges that Dr. Banaag gave birth to child psychiatry in the country and like a caring father, he continues to nurture his baby, although it’s now a full-grown adult. “I’m still very much involved with the training. We now have more than 40 child psychiatrists in the country, most of them are home-grown and trained here,” he beams proudly like a doting parent.
Dr. Banaag admits to having a soft spot for children and has also led an advocacy to save street children from substance abuse. “It breaks my heart to watch an increasing number of children spending the major parts of their waking hours in the streets, some of them truly living in the streets, as they try to eke out a living. Nothing could be more adverse than to live and/or work for a living in the streets of the major cities of the Philippines,” he says.
As a staunch supporter of the cause to rid children off the streets and dangerous substances, Dr. Banaag has taken bold steps to help these children. The World Health Organization invited him to be a consultant for its Program on Street Children and Substance Abuse. As such, he brought back to the Philippines new knowledge and technology in addressing the problems of street children, particularly those involved in abusing drugs and other addictive substances.
In his work with street children, directly and indirectly, Dr. Banaag got to know certain street children who were resilient, veritable success stories. “This is the group of street children who not only survive the adversities of working in the streets but also become stronger and better persons because of those adversities,” he explains.
Dr. Banaag was so inspired by the lives of these children that he made a research on what made them resilient. His research, helped by colleagues Dr. Portia Luspo and Dr. Sonia Castro-Rodriguez, became the source of a book he wrote entitled “Resiliency-Stories Found in Philippine Streets”. The book was supported by UNICEF and became a major resource for individuals working with street children.
With his heart belonging to both children and young adolescents, his students fondly call him the “Father of Child Psychiatry”—a title that Dr. Banaag finds humbling, yet one that he takes seriously. His passion has helped save countless young souls, and hopefully with his continuing work and research, he will be able to add more to his “to-save” list.
Blessing in disguise
For a doctor with so many accomplishments, it would have been easy for Dr. Banaag to leave the country and earn much more elsewhere. But he chose to stay here to practice—a move Dr. Banaag has never regretted, and rather considered as his biggest accomplishment.
Despite doubting his move in returning to the Philippines and turning down lucrative job offers in the United States at first, it has been apparent that this has been a blessing in disguise.
In return, Dr. Banaag has made it a point to care for his patients well. Keeping in mind that medicine is a vocation, he has never used his profession as a business. He says that he sticks with The Medical City because he shares the same vision and mission as the hospital, and that is to put patients on center stage. Taking the value of life seriously has made Dr. Banaag an icon in his own right.
With all humility, Dr. Banaag says, “I really have no ambition to be remembered by people. But for those who would, I guess I want to be remembered as a simple man who tried to do the best he could, and in the simple way he could, to make his part of the world a little better than when he first walked into it.”