Jailed doc firm on his innocence in negligence case till the very end
MANILA, Philippines — As the medical community mourns the loss of one of the country’s top orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Benigno Agbayani Jr.’s sudden death last month was also deeply felt by his fellow inmates at Manila City Jail (MCJ), where he had been incarcerated for more than four months.
Fondly called “Doc Iggy,” the 58-year-old former chair of the orthopedic department of Manila Doctors Hospital (MDH) died of a massive heart attack on Oct. 5 while serving his one-year sentence for reckless imprudence in what he described in one of his journals as “one of the most congested city jails in the world.”
During his brief stay at Manila City Jail-Male Dormitory (MCJ-MD), Agbayani became a “morale booster” to thousands of detainees and prisoners and a “father, friend, and adviser” to his 250 “dorm mates” since he stepped into the compound, according to spokesperson Jail Officer 1 Elmar Jacobe.
‘Life in hell’
But what struck both inmates and jail officers most was that the doctor wanted to alleviate prison conditions and vowed to advocate jail reforms once released, Jacobe said.
Citing statements from Agbayani’s “kasalo,” or jail buddies, Jacobe said that Doc Iggy saw and listened to the needs of the inmates — to get regular medical consultations, raise their daily food allowance, a paltry P70 for three meals a day per individual, and the right to a speedy trial.
In one of the accounts he wrote sometime in August, Agbayani recounted his “life in hell,” where jail food is called “rancho” consisting of “gray rice with sprinkles of vegetable or meat.” The dorms were infested with mosquitos and “surot” (bed bugs) which were “the first to welcome at night.” And the toilet “will not pass sanitary standards,” the doctor added.
Agbayani’s best buddies, identified only by their aliases — Denden, Rafael, and Mel — said he “would drop whatever he was doing to attend to queries or health concerns of both PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) and jail personnel,” Jacobe said.
“And he did everything for free,” he said.
Jail warden Supt. Lino Soriano called Agbayani one of the “movers” of MCJ “because he really moved to help the PDLs in terms of medical assistance … and in terms of [boosting] their morale,” Jacobe said.
Doc Iggy initiated three medical missions with the help of his classmates from the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine class of 1991 and his Phi Kappa Mu Fraternity brothers. The first in July catered to 150 inmates, 375 in August and about 700 in September.
He was already planning the next medical mission on Oct. 5 when, around noon, he suddenly fell on the floor unconscious close to the jail warden’s office. He was rushed to Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center where doctors tried to revive him.
‘I’m not guilty’
“It’s worth noting that Dr. Agbayani is expected to be released on Nov. 26, 2023, based on good conduct time allowance credits, reflecting his adherence to the rules and regulations during his incarceration,” MCJ said in a statement sent to the Inquirer.
Agbayani did not seek parole or pardon, saying in a journal that it would mean admitting guilt that could be used as a precedent in future cases against doctors.
In his open letter to fellow physicians publicly shared by his “brods” on Facebook, Doc Iggy vowed to fight the “grave injustice foisted upon me because I am not guilty of any crime.” His detention stemmed from a criminal case lodged in 2006 by one of his patients, lawyer, and newspaper columnist Saul Hofileña Jr., at the Metropolitan Trial Court (MeTC) Branch 26.
Based on court records, Hofileña was referred to Agbayani at MDH to get an arthroscopy, a surgical procedure to diagnose and treat joint issues, in January 2006. However, this led to an infection which was blamed on Agbayani. Hofileña claimed that the arthroscope used in the operation was not sterile.
Hofileña said he “suffered serious physical injuries, on his left knee, rendering him incapacitated” for more than 30 days. He had the infection removed at another hospital, but he claimed that Agbayani’s “reckless” procedure caused him to “walk with a cane for a prolonged period.”
The 2013 MeTC decision handed down by then Presiding Judge Manuel Recto found Agbayani guilty of reckless imprudence resulting in serious physical injuries and the doctor “should answer for such negligence.”
Doc Iggy sought to reverse the lower court’s ruling but the Court of Appeals denied his petition in 2014 for “lack of merit.”
The orthopedist brought his case to the Supreme Court, but its Third Division found that the appellate court “committed no reversible error.” The high court ruled on June 23, 2021, to also deny his petition for review.
But it reduced Agbayani’s punishment from two years to a maximum of one year.
His family is praying their final “Hail Mary”—as his younger sister Tina Robles puts it—as the late doctor’s new lawyer Estelito Mendoza strongly believes there was a “miscarriage of justice.”
“This case didn’t need an excellent lawyer. What we needed was a fair trial,” Robles said in a phone interview. The pieces of evidence presented in court were not able to prove that the instrument her brother used wasn’t sterile or that he was negligent, she said.
“What we are going after is to know whether he’s really guilty and whether it was correct for him to end up in jail for what happened,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Various medical societies issued separate messages of support, for which his family was “deeply grateful,” she said.
On Nov. 3, the Philippine Medical Association said that it would back “another chance for judicial review.”
The Philippine Orthopedic Association said it was “united in the pursuit of truth and justice, not only for the sake of the late Dr. Agbayani but also for the welfare and protection of medical professionals in the country.”
The UP Medical Alumni Society in America said: “The decision on the case likewise puts the physician more vulnerable to those who just exploit the legal system for personal gains.”
“It is our collective responsibility to support those who have been accused and strive for a legal system that upholds integrity and protects the innocent and above all, a legal system that should hand out justice in a fair and commensurate manner,” it noted.
Like his fellow jail officers, Jacobe thinks Agbayani, the only doctor held at MCJ over the last 10 to 20 years, had served his “purpose.”
“Maybe the purpose of his being sent to us was to open doors for PDLs … and to link other doctors to them,” Jacobe said.
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