Anna Palabyab Rufino Discusses the Myths About Dermatology & How She Chose Her Career

The field of dermatology is highly misunderstood, rues Anna.

There are times when what happens just outside the frame is almost as interesting as the photograph itself. That Anna’s radiant beauty shines across webpage and the next few scrolls downward is undeniable, but how she manages to keep a serene front with the bedlam around her, well, that deserves praise as well. In between takes at the vast Dreamplay activity center at the City of Dreams, a noisy gaggle of children dashes between Anna and the camera, and exasperated yayas chase after their wards. Things settle down when the photographer starts clicking; Anna poses this way and that, blissfully oblivious to the strangers who gather to watch. This certainly isn’t her first dance. 

Her confidence in front of the camera might come down to a few things, the most obvious being her experience as a former teen model. Perhaps being a mother of three herself has made Anna unfazed at being surrounded by rowdy children. Maybe her being a doctor makes everything else seem easy. What makes Anna tick? Let’s explore. 

In the relative quiet of the home she shares with her husband Raymond and her three boys—Stefano, Francesco, and Raffaello— Anna talks passionately about her life so far. It’s been life well-lived, with no regrets.

 The second of four children in an alternating set of boys and girls, Anna had two dermatologists as parents; and as early as she can remember, she wanted to follow in their footsteps. “At our school’s kindergarten graduation, we were all asked to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. I got up on stage and said I wanted to be a doctor,” recalls Anna, who did fulfill that dream, earning her medical degree at the University of Santo Tomas in 2005. “I was always on the path toward medicine,” Anna reflects, pausing to gather her thoughts. “It’s funny now. When I was in med school, I told my mom, ‘You know what, I really think you brainwashed me!’ But she did it really well—it’s always what I’ve wanted to be. I didn’t feel the pressure or even feel like I was brainwashed. When I told her that, she smiled and said, ‘What else? Of course I did.’” 

Among Anna’s fondest memories as a child was accompanying her mother Claire to her clinic in Greenhills before heading to toy stores. At around age 10, Anna noticed she had learned a few things by just hanging out at the clinic. “My mom would laugh at me as I would diagnose people who were standing in line at stores, like the more obvious cases or the more straightforward ones. I told my mom one time, ‘That man has vitiligo.’ And she confirmed it. I guess my eye was trained early on.” 

At our school’s kindergarten graduation, we were all asked to say what we wanted to be when we grew up. I got up on stage and said I wanted to be a doctor.

Similar to many girls, Anna was enrolled in ballet class by her mother. But unlike her early love for medicine, ballet wasn’t something she took to immediately. How could she? Having an older and younger brother, their activities just seemed so much more fun. “I grew up playing with my brothers, for sure. I had my own toys and my own set of friends, but their friends would be at the house more often, and that’s why I think I ended up playing a lot with their Legos and G.I. Joes. That’s also how I got into basketball.” 

Looking at her now, it is hard to imagine this seemingly delicate, prim and proper young woman with flawless skin shooting hoops or sweating it out on the court. Her husband Raymond, one of the top guns of the country’s real estate industry, offers a little perspective: “She is fiercely competitive! Many people think Anna is reserved or timid. Try competing against her in sports, games, whatever, and you will be shocked by her fighting spirit. That’s why I always choose to be on her team—it’s usually the winning side.” 

Anna seemed comfortable in front of the camera, perhaps because she's had experience with modelling in the past.

Anna modestly tempers any expectations about her basketball skills, although she did make the high school varsity team when she was at Poveda. “Well, there was always that phrase—for a girl—attached to my game. Not a lot of girls play basketball. When boys meet someone who does, most guys say, ‘You play pretty well—for a girl!’” The curious would then ask if her ballet impacted her playing, and not surprisingly, it did. “People say I shoot with pointed toes! So when I did a jump shot, maybe I looked more graceful than the others did. I really enjoyed being sporty.”

On setting new goals

When Anna entered college to take psychology at Ateneo de Manila University, her goals suddenly changed. Ballet and basketball took a backseat not only to her studies, but to her growing desire to have a “normal” college life. “When people ask me why I didn’t try out, I guess it’s because I thought it would be different, much more serious, from playing in high school. I wanted to experience going out more at night, having fun like other students, not having to wake up so early in the morning to train.”

Anna maintained a healthy balance, enjoying that life while keeping decent grades, good enough to get her into med school. Adjusting to a new campus wasn’t difficult, especially as several of her friends got accepted as well. “Aside from my college friends, it was a reunion of sorts as my high school friends who went to other colleges went to med school at UST… That made it fun, made med school bearable.”

Studying to become a doctor, Anna experienced a newfound liberty, as she was allowed by her parents to rent a studio so she wouldn’t have to travel all the way from their Valle Verde home to the España campus every day. Long before the first day of classes, she already had her sights on a place along Lacson Street very near the school. “When I was just applying, I already wanted to live in that building. It was like a little Parisian apartment. It looked old, but not that old. It’s owned by the designer Efren Ocampo. It was cute with wrought iron grilles, a little balcony. And it was right across! You know the independence of having your own place? I had a taste of it. It’s a good thing my parents really trusted me.” 

Choosing between career opportunities

Today Anna is a practicing dermatologist just like her parents, seeing patients at various clinics across the city. Things could have been very different had she been seduced by the glitz of another calling which she dabbled in during her student days: the world of modeling. Like many who try modeling, she got into it almost by chance. It so happened that the Palabyabs had the esteemed photographer Wig Tysmans as a family friend. Having lunch one day at their home, he had an idea. “I was around 11 at the time. He looked at me and said, ‘I have a shoot later today. Want to come with me?’ My mom said it was okay. So I tagged along with him, and he asked the owners of the store he was shooting for if they wanted to use me as the model, and they said sure! I think I was paid with a dress, so back then I was just doing it for fun. Eventually I did more shoots for them.”

Some people think dermatologists aren’t even doctors. There are people who think we are aestheticians or something like that, or think dermatology is just about beautification. There’s a cosmetic side and the pathologic as well. There are sick patients in need of dermatological treatment.

While in college Anna had more modeling assignments—paid this time—but already she was careful about the jobs she accepted; it was about quality, not quantity, she reasoned. At one point, she became the face of Ivory soap during its 1990s heyday. So does she miss it? “No, not really!” she insists, but admits that modeling taught her some very important life lessons. “I am glad that I was able to earn so that I could buy what I wanted without having to ask from my parents, although they always gave me more than what I needed. It was more of it being easier to negotiate with them for certain things. Can I do this or do that, travel here or there? If they said no, I could say that I would be able to pay for it. So I had more bargaining power. And it taught me how to be responsible with my own money.” 

Finding love and growing a family

Longtime readers of Town&Country may remember Anna from a few years ago, when we had a feature on her charming home. A highlight of that piece was the story of how Anna and Raymond became a couple. Anna recaps with her “short version”: “We were set up on a blind date by a family friend. I didn’t want to go with someone I knew, because he might think that I liked him. I was so shy then! Our friend said Raymond was a great guy and he’s talkative. I was 16, I wasn’t even thinking about dating anyone yet. He was two years older and in college then. It was only after I graduated college that we got together." 

They got married in Tagaytay on the 17th, exactly 12 years to the day after her prom.

Her husband says: “A good friend of mine told me on my wedding day: From now on, may this be the day you love each other the least. I didn’t think that was possible but with every passing year, I find myself loving Anna more and more. When she became a mother, I saw her boundless patience, dedication, and love for the kids. She is an amazing mother and the rose at the center of our family of thorns, all of us boys. We are truly lucky and blessed.”

I can say I am hands-on with my kids, but I also have a career.

The cycle of life

In the counterculture classic Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse wrote, “Even the unhappiest life has its sunny moments and its little flowers of happiness between sand and stone.” The converse is also true. In Anna’s seemingly perfect life— having a loving husband, adorable children, a fulfilling career, and a home of their own—some darkness had to creep in. Two years ago, Anna’s father Efren was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic disease where the lung tissue becomes scarred, resulting in impaired function and ultimately death. Within two months he passed away. He was 70.

“Doctors are the worst patients,” laments Anna, who to this day is dismayed that the diagnosis—and the resulting treatment—came too late. After a brief but painful struggle, her father died at home, surrounded by family. Anna considers those months the most difficult of her life. “It was the first time I actually experienced this kind of loss. I keep telling people that it was during this time that I will never, ever regret being a doctor. It was so much easier to understand what was going on, what he was going through, what his doctors were going through, and being able to make the right decisions,” she explains. 

“So 2015 was a whirlwind of emotions. There was grief and sadness, but then there was also joy.”

To help ease the pain of losing her father, Anna and Raymond welcomed the birth of their third child in August of that year. “I found out I was pregnant on New Year’s Eve. Then my Dad got sick in February. As I was pregnant, it was harder for me to take care of him. But to have my son in the same year as when my dad passed away has really been a blessing,” confides Anna.

Isabel Palabyab, Anna’s younger sister, believes that Anna’s selfless personality is perfectly suited to motherhood. Despite their 11-year age gap, their bond as sisters is strong. “She never really made me feel like I was so much younger,” says Isabel. “She would always try to include me by bringing me around with her all the time and asking my opinion. Though we don’t live in the same home anymore, we still share clothes… And even now that I am older and she has three kids, we are still always together or texting each other.”

Raymond shares the same opinion. Asked to name a few things about Anna that he’s most proud of (he says he can name more than a hundred) he immediately says, “The happiness of those around her—her family, friends, and patients—is the key to her happiness. She has very clear priorities and her heart is always in the right place.”

It could be fate or destiny; Anna thinks that she’s just been very, very lucky.

Playing Dr. Feelgood

The field of dermatology is highly misunderstood, rues Anna. Foremost is the misconception that dermatology is only concerned with aesthetics. “Some people think dermatologists aren’t even doctors. There are people who think we are aestheticians or something like that, or think dermatology is just about beautification. There’s a cosmetic side and the pathologic as well. There are sick patients in need of dermatological treatment.” Anna has grown concerned about the increasing number of people who pass themselves off as dermatologists when they aren’t qualified, mentioning that after med school, you have to do at least three years residency at an accredited hospital to be able to practice. That’s the route she took, training at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine in Alabang. “It’s an infectious diseases hospital under the Department of Health. There, day in day out, we treated patients for leprosy, psoriasis, and even HIV-related cases.” 

After the death of her father, Anna also found great happiness with being offered the chance to take over one of his clinics, the one at St. Camillus Medical Center in Pasig. “My dad served there for 25 years. When they asked me if I wanted to take over, I said of course. It was nice to see his old patients, and they were really saddened by the news of his death. I could feel it. They would tell me stories about him, and I would see his writing on their medical history charts. They’re good patients. I like going to this hospital. I am glad I was able to take his slot.” 

Moving On

Among the reasons Anna chose to specialize in dermatology was the flexibility that it offered compared to other medical fields. “The flexibility of the schedule is really good for a mother who wants to be with her children. When I was growing up, my parents were always there, they never missed out on any special occasion. They never missed a school program. Things like that. That’s the kind of lifestyle I also wanted.

 “I can say I am hands-on with my kids, but I also have a career. It’s not quite where I want it to be yet, but slowly I will be able to focus more on it as my kids get older.”

 She’s taking the steps to get there, as she intends to finally set up a clinic of her own. “Now, on certain days, I share a clinic with my mom in Medical City. My plan is that on some days, she can also join me at my clinic. And then my sister, can also join us one day! It will be a family practice, just like my mom and dad’s.”

I have what is important and everything else is just extra.

After the ups and downs of the past, everything seems to be falling into place now. It could be fate or destiny; Anna thinks that she’s just been very, very lucky. “I am content, I don’t have to have this or that. I have what is important and everything else is just extra. I am grateful. I don’t know what else to say.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Town&Country Philippines.

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Pierre A. Calasanz
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