Health Activism in the Philippines: Jofti Villena’s Journey
I have an ongoing series here in my blog called Well-thy Pinoy Profiles, so when I chanced upon Jofti Villena’s Inquirer article on prevention last August, I thought it would be a good idea to feature her next in the series. She declined my invite, however, saying that she might not fit the bill as she was currently dealing with rheumatic arthritis.
That got me thinking, though. Ms. Villena might not be the fittest and healthiest Pinay there is right now, but my readers and I might pick nuggets of wisdom from her health journey, so I asked if she’d consent to being interviewed about her condition. This post is the result of my interview with her. Do read her answers and share your thoughts. 🙂
Name Maria Fatima Villena (Nickname: Jofti)
Occupation Freelancer for advocacy and research work on health; Development Worker; Owner and author of HealthActivist.ph.
Hobbies Dancing (particularly bellydancing and Zumba); cooking; reading; studying and writing about health
Social media accounts
- Facebook account – Maria Fatima Villena (Jofti)
- Facebook Page – healthactivist.ph
- Twitter – @jofti
The story behind Health Activist PH
You have a health blog named Health Activist PH. What is your background in health? What got you interested in this field?
When my second “tatay” (father) at work was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer in 2011, I realized how unhealthy I was. Both he and I weren’t eating or exercising right. Both he and I just slept an average of 3-5 hours. Additionally, I was 170 lbs.
I took charge of my health a year later. I started watching my food intake and began going to the gym. I hired a nutritionist and trainer. In 6 months, I lost 30 pounds.
I also rediscovered myself and my passion for dancing. I joined the 2012 Annual Bellydance Festival that year and that was where I met my dance instructor Jill Ngo-Crisologo.
Since I am a development worker and an activist, I wanted to share my passion for taking charge over one’s health to others but they can only do so if the environment and structures are right. I said to myself, “I need to gain knowledge, skills and experience on health so I may advocate.” First thing I did was to resign from my job and look for other NGOs/civil society organizations that carried a program on health. I want to have a say and not just do administrative and secretariat tasks for a program.
I was able to get a research work on community health. It was the perfect work for me to learn the ropes in the field of health. Apart from my work, I already applied for a MA program on Health Policy (Science Track) since I have been working and dealing with policy making for years when I started development work. These I did alongside with my volunteer advocacy work in a health campaign and advocacy network engaged in budget monitoring and alternative budget development for the Department of Health (DOH).
I continue today with these engagements and initiatives apart from the trainings I enrolled in to develop and hone my skills in evidence-based policy making. I look forward to develop a specialized curriculum on health communication so that I may be able to translate and communicate evidence on health accurately for policy making and for people to be able to take charge of their health.
Rheumatoid arthritis 101
You mentioned being recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. For those who are not familiar with the condition, what is rheumatoid arthritis? What are the risk factors for it?
Last year, I started feeling joint pains in my body – fingers, elbows, soles of feet, knees, neck, and shoulder. Several months later, one general practitioner initially diagnosed me with Rheumatoid Arthritis. He advised me to undergo a series of laboratory tests and consult a rheumatologist, which I did. The rheumatologist is about 95% sure I have the disease; I have to redo some of the tests, though. She explained to me that there is no particular cause of the disease but it has many triggering factors like lack of sleep. Perhaps my parents and/or siblings are gene carriers of the disease. I had the bad habit of not sleeping right before so maybe that’s why the signs and symptoms manifested on me.
The most common type of autoimmune disease
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is the most common type of autoimmune disease. It is chronic, progressive, and disabling. The immune system attacks the synovium, the tissue that lines the joint. It causes inflammation and pain in the joints, the tissue around the joints, and other organs in the human body. Any joint may become affected.
Patient with RA commonly have stiff joints especially in the morning and feel generally unwell and tired. This was exactly what I felt when almost all joints in my body were painful last May. I can only do a small amount of work and then I am already fatigued.
Women are most likely to have it than men. The other risk factors include genetics, age, smoking, and – for men – a low testosterone level. According to Medical News Today, “people who receive early treatment for RA feel better sooner and more often, and are more likely to lead an active life. They also are less likely to have the type of joint damage that leads to joint replacement.”
How are you currently managing your condition?
Initially, I did acupuncture and massage sessions for a month. I rested a slept a lot as well. I started taking homeopathic medicines and herbal capsules like turmeric and marvellosa/sinta.
I also decided to go vegan one day, when all the pain just didn’t seem to go away. I contacted my vegan friends and am very thankful for their help. In the process of changing my diet, I lost 12 more pounds (from 140 to 128 lbs).
Veganism: How challenging is it?
How has your vegan helped with your condition? What are the challenges of having a vegan diet? Is it easy to follow a vegan diet in the Philippines?
With all the interventions I did since May for my condition, the things that were consistent were my sleeping pattern (10-5 AM) and my transitioning towards a vegan diet. At this point, I am about 85-95% vegan and yet, I already noticed some very marked improvement in my condition starting July. I feel lesser pain in my joints. I still experience morning stiffness but there’s not much pain unlike before and it only last for minutes to an hour. I noticed that if I lack sleep and am too tired that’s when the joints flare up.
I am at a point where I am ready to take my being vegan to the next level and make my intervention systematic. Thus, I met up with a lifestyle MD at Adventist Medical Center who is known amongst vegans as a staunch advocate of the plant-based diet. I am going to undergo a two-day program of detox on December so that I can absorb all the nutrients that I ate from plants after my detox.
Shopping the vegan way
I am still learning. Sometimes, I commit mistakes when buying food products that are not vegan. You see being vegan takes a lot of planning and practice to be skillful at it. Even if you’ve been a vegan for years, you can still commit those mistakes. So for me I don’t stress myself out and just move on after a mistake.
I took baby steps like what I did when I changed my lifestyle. I am still transitioning. I started with eliminating the real meat – no seafoods, no pork, no beef, no lamb, no chicken. Of course, no more dairies like eggs, milk, cheese, and those desserts made out of dairies. I can’t still eliminate those vegetables viands that used meats as “pampalasa” (flavor enhancers) altogether. I am a very mobile person and at times I am not able to prepare my food because I have to leave at 5:00-5:30 AM from home to my destination and arrive home usually late nights. I also have Saturday classes.
My husband loves my vegan creations but I am not able to cook all the time. Sometimes, I order vegan meals from vendors that deliver in the QC and Makati areas. There are vegan restaurants in the metro but most of them are in the south. I detest vegan restaurants that serve overpriced but bland dishes, by the way.
A community can also help one’s transition into veganism. I am thus glad to have discovered the Manila Vegans, a 7868-strong community for Manila-based and Manila-bound vegans.
On my own, I developed my vegan MANTRA: Finding, Veganizing, Creating and Re-creating. First, you need to invest on your vegan finds. What I invested on were herbs, spices, condiments, and noodles and those food products which I normally use before – mayonnaise, cheeses, butter, etc. I also look for vegan restaurants all over the Philippines. Would you believe I found vegan restaurants in Davao City, Kidapawan City, and Butuan City during my research fieldwork? I was so happy. I even spent just Php 60-100 for my meals there.
Then when I feel like eating out and there are no vegan restaurants nearby, I “veganize” food items by talking to waiters and baristas (like what I did to the mango yogurt at Starbucks where I asked them to use soy milk without the yogurt).
Of course, I always feel like creating vegan dishes in my kitchen. And when I crave for a meat dish, I re-create it using quality veggie meats from trusted sources.
The path to wellness
What can you advise to people who also have rheumatoid arthritis? What can you advise those who don’t have the condition but would like to maintain their good health? Can rheumatoid arthritis be prevented?
What I always advise is to take charge of your health and be pro-active. Don’t let your illness bring you down. Know your body and reflect on why it happen. My healer friend told me that all illnesses are based on psyche. Mine was because I was too rigid and unaccepting.
For those without RA, knowing your body is the key. Being able to feel it and know when it’s giving you the signals that it’s time to rest or sleep. Now, I don’t care much about achievements or being able to multi-task. I feel that I can easily give up work when I feel that the environment there is toxic. I am learning to love myself more.
Also, have a balanced life. Eat right and exercise. Right now, I am still waiting to be well so I can get back to dancing. Sleep right so that your organs regain their energy to function again in the morning. Rest well. Learn when to say no to work or other commitments. Spend time with improving relationships with your divine, your family, friends, and yourself.
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I am not affiliated with the organizations mentioned in this post.
Thanks very much to Jofti Villena for her answers and for sharing her photos! Had to edit the length of her answers for brevity’s sake. I also had to highlight her last answer because it was so on target!! You may view her answers here, by the way.
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