Thursday, January 20, 2022

It takes a village

Dr. Al Bismonte. Submitted photos

Dr. Al Bismonte. Submitted photos

We are fortunate enough in our community to have numerous local residents who are truly amazing. Maybe it’s the things they’ve done in their lives, or maybe it’s the hardships they’ve overcome. Almost always,  it’s an acquaintance you’d never guess had lived such a life, or did the wonderful things they still do, because they’re not concerned with being ‘recognized’ for it.

Albino Bismonte is one such person. Dr. Al Bismonte, I should say. Al said he was the luckiest member of his family. Why? He was the youngest. When he went to school and chose to become a doctor, all his family supported him:  Aunts, uncles, mother, father, brothers and sisters, all the relatives helped finance his education. It was through their hard work and generosity that he was able to go to school and receive an education. Student loans did not exist in the Philippines.

Al was born in Baao, Camarines Sur, Philippines.  After graduating from medicine, he took the test for Educational Council for Foreign Medical Graduate. (This is to qualify as a foreign medical graduate to train in the U.S.) He had no interest in coming to the U.S. at that time, but wondered if he could pass the test, but he wondered if he could pass the test, so he applied. He did not think about it again until he received a phone call to congratulate him. When he asked “What for?” he was told he had passed the test and been accepted to a hospital in Chicago.

When the time was nearing for his departure to the United States, his sister asked to be informed a few days ahead of time. When Al asked why, she said she was going to borrow the money to pay for his transportation. At that moment, he swore once he graduated, he would not accept money from his family. In 1966, he went to Chicago, where he finished his post-graduate work to become a Board Certified Pediatrician. Al Bismonte later became the first Fellow in Allergy and Immunology at Cook County Hospital. By the time he was ready to return home to the Philippines, his children urged him to stay in the US.

Al was lucky to get out of the province to make a living. His sister’s husband had a stroke and is wheelchair bound. They exist on her retired government teacher’s pension of $20 month and help from Al. And although there is a rural health clinic for those needing medical attention, they can’t afford the prescriptions given them. So, Al started making medical missions.

Al would gather all the supplies he could muster from pharmaceutical companies, samples from salesmen, his clinic, and other doctors. Once or twice per year he returns home to do a medical mission. At first he was going to operate out of the rural health clinic. It was announced a few days earlier what time registration would be.

On the first day, his sister woke him up at daybreak, “Get up! Get up!” When asked why he had to get up so early (he didn’t have to be there until later in the morning), she said, “Look out the window, they are lined up outside!” People had come to her house to see him because the line at the Rural Health Clinic was already very long. Most of the time his medical mission ends when his medical supply runs out. Once the town mayor wanted him to see people at his home, but seeing this as a political ploy, Al refused.

During his busiest week he saw over 400 children. Soon he decided to reach out past his barrio and selected a location central to three or four barrios. He planned to work there for half a day. He knew that it would take him the whole day to see his patients. His relatives prepared rice soup so each person waiting in line would have a little something to get them through the long wait. They cut off registration at 12:00 PM hoping to alleviate the crowd, but no one left. Each waited for their turn to see the doctor. Al usually pays for prescriptions for medicine that he does not have with him.

Although Al retired to Marco Island in 2002 to enjoy his hobbies of fishing and gardening, he continues to make one or two mission trips per year. The difference with retirement is now he pays for supplies out of his own pocket. This year, with the support of the Knights of Columbus, he wrote more prescriptions and saw more children. There are no more free samples, although he does purchase supplies wholesale.

Al is an active member of the local Knights of Columbus, San Marco Catholic Church, and Noontime Rotary Club.  When asked to set up this interview, he said he was busy going to Publix at 6:00 AM to collect bread for Bedtime Bundles.   Bedtime Bundles delivers the bread to Circle L Farms and through Manatee Elementary School.   Starbuck’s now gives their dated bakery goods as well.

Al is still active at his church, St. Anastasia, and St. Anastasia School in Waukegan, Illinois. In another school, they offer children’s sports physicals for $5 and give the money back to the school’s Athletic Department, among other charity efforts. Al even performed a traditional Pilipino Folk Dance for a fund-raising event. Someone familiar with his volunteer work nominated him for the 2008 Humanitarian Award which he received. Al also received the President’s Call to Service Award in 2008 from President Bush and the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation.

It may have taken a village for Al to become a doctor, but Al is certainly not the only fortunate one being the youngest member of his family. Countless others have been graced by this fortune as well.

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