By Dom Galeon
Portrait by Noel Pabalate
Video by David Clarence Rivera
Willie Ong is an influencer. His nearly 10 million followers on Facebook and a million followers on YouTube attest to this. But he isn’t like other popular influencers. He doesn’t promote particular brands, he doesn’t go on sponsored trips, he doesn’t post OOTDs, he doesn’t even use influencer-speak.
Willie, or Doc Willie as most people would call him, speaks in his videos in the way he does in real life. His English, he says, is not even perfect. But that doesn’t matter, it seems. And the Silver Google Play Button plaque hanging in a wall inside his home office is proof of that.
But over and above being an influencer, Willie Ong is a doctor. Manila Bulletin Lifestyle sat for a one-on-one interview with him to talk about his work as a doctor and why he wants to try his luck in politics.
From being a doctor to writing books and then writing articles online, you’ve appeared on TV —how did that start?
When I was young, I realized that I was kind of pampered. I had everything I wanted, books, food, anything I wanted to buy. And somehow I felt guilty. I felt that there was a higher purpose. I went to Xavier School and they taught us, even at a young age, that you should be a man for others. They would show us videos of Jesus helping the sick, sacrificing himself.
I thought that’s the highest thing you could do. You do good, maybe God will see it and reward you. I remember a college teacher who told me, if you cannot understand the world, just go with service. You cannot go wrong with service. Just continue serving and maybe somewhere in the end, it will work out. Or if there’s nothing, at least you did your part.
Is that what made you decide to be a doctor?
Yes. I just wanted to help people. I had everything I wanted but they say that there’s something that is implanted in you. And I really felt my mission is to do this: To serve and to help—not for fame, not for a good life.
That’s just my goal. It might be strange or might seem different. But I just kept on doing it my way. Unfortunately you can’t really do that. Your parents will think you’re crazy. When I went to college, I wanted to go into medicine. My parents told me, you’re Tsinoy, you have to go into business. You have to take care of the business. You have to earn lots of money. But I was thinking, I’m the youngest of four siblings, my three brothers and sisters are doing well, they can handle the business. So I said maybe I can just focus on helping people.
I remember a college teacher who told me, if you cannot understand the world, just go with service. You cannot go wrong with service. Just continue serving and maybe somewhere in the end, it will work out.
Was this something you did right at the get-go?
When I went into college, I realized I couldn’t help people so much as a student. So I went into depression. I stopped [studying] for two to three years. I couldn’t reach my goal. When I finally graduated after seven years, I slowly inched into medical school. But I was still dealing with depression, which lasted for 10 years.
How did I get cured? It was during my clerkship when I started getting my confidence back. I saw the poor lolas and lolos in the charity wards, I saw that they really needed me, they looked up to me for help. It was as if I had a purpose again. Every time I help, I get better. That’s one treatment for those who are depressed: You have to take the effort to go out and start helping, even if it’s hard.
Do you consider that to be a moment when you doubted the point of helping others?
Yes. I really wanted to help but the universe was not helping me. (laughs)
You know, aside from seeing you on TV , one of the things I heard about you is that you don’t receive or take professional fees.
Yes. I became a doctor first because I really wanted to help patients. The reward is there. As a doctor, during my first year, I thought of treating the rich and collecting fees to give it to the poor. During my first year of practice, maybe I earned P500,000. I gave it to Sister Eva Maamo from Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Parañaque. She’s the Philippine Mother Teresa. She won a Ramon Magsaysay award. I gave all my money there during my first and second year of practice. But I realized that it does not work that way. I said I would just devote all my work to charity. The initial Robin Hood style does not work.
So where do you get your money?
I was fortunate enough that my parents left me with money, but not so much. What I do is I don’t spend unnecessarily. I don’t go abroad. I’ve never been to Paris, for example.
And whenever I give my health tips for free, when I don’t charge people, that’s where the trust and the following comes. But perhaps people are not ready to accept this. When I tell people I don’t charge professional fees, they don’t think it’s possible. “Walang taong ganyan kabait,” they would say. But you see, I have always been like that, that’s how I have been for many years now—I never accepted fees for my articles before. But people are not ready to accept that.
So why and when did you start writing?
Because I couldn’t see so many patients. I could only see 20 to 50 patients a day.
My first article was in The Manila Bulletin in 2001. It’s called “Heart Health.” It was for Charter Files under the Lifestyle section. I think I reached more people by writing.
Your online content is mostly medical advice?
Yes plus other life lessons. But even that, I think, is not enough.
I’ll tell you something I haven’t told anyone yet. During my third year with the DOH, in 2013, we donated P500,000 to the charity arm of the department, hoping that Sec. Ona would add more budget to it, which he did.
Is this the reason you want to try out politics?
Yes because how do you help more people? Giving tips on health is ok. But what about for those who are already suffering from a serious sickness, those who are undergoing dialysis, for example? You need to do more than just give health tips. You have to push for a better medical industry in the country. If you want to help more people, you just have to sacrifice more.