YOUNGSTOWN – Dr. Jaime A. Pabilonia sports a long-sleeved Yellowstone T-shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and long, white ponytail with matching goatee as he swings the front door open to his River Road home.
It is immediately obvious this home is a refuge, a studio, a comfort zone.
It is filled with original artwork created by the longtime child psychiatrist and his wife, Linda. There are intricate Chinese brush paintings on rice paper; lively acrylics of sailboats echoing time spent in the Bahamas; beautifully crafted quilts; soapstone carvings from lessons enjoyed with a Native American artist; even a coffee table handmade from the trunk of a redwood tree.
Pabilonia officially retired in November, a day after turning 85. He leans on a cane adorned with a slithering snake carved of driftwood found on his Niagara River property.
It doesn’t take long to realize Dr. Pabilonia is resourceful, creative, artistic, fun-loving, philosophical, conscientious and hard-working. Even in retirement, he continues to work a few hours per week at Schoellkopf Health Center and Community Missions.
“They cannot find anyone to replace me and I cannot leave until they do,” he said in an accent that still sings of his native Philippines.
He arrived in Niagara Falls 57 years ago this month, fresh from medical school in Manila, and ready to start an internship at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. He was on a two-year visa, and eager to return to his wife, four young children and large extended family in the Philippines when it expired. He planned to establish himself as a doctor in his native land.
Instead, his life became fraught with “several complications and challenges,” in the words of Pabilonia.
Pabilonia never returned to his native Philippines to practice medicine. Following his internship in the Falls, he completed psychiatric residencies in Gowanda and in Northville, Michigan before taking a position as a psychiatrist in Nassau, in the Bahamas. A visiting friend from Niagara Falls told him of a child psychiatrist position at the Beeman Clinic in Niagara Falls and he returned to accept the job in 1969. He soon also began moonlighting at the Adult Mental Health Clinic in Lockport, as well as teaching at Niagara University.
Pabilonia became an American citizen on Nov. 17, 1977, and has been married three times. He credits his wife, Linda, whom he met on May 7, 1977, and married on May 7, 1980, with changing his life. Together, they have seven children, seven grandsons, seven granddaughters and seven great-grandchildren.
Pabilonia marvels that the number “7” has appeared so many times in his life. It guided his decision to choose Nov. 17 as the date he retired from the Monsignor Carr Clinic (part of Catholic Charities of WNY) in Niagara Falls, where he had worked for the past several years.
At age 80, Dr. Pabilonia wrote his autobiography for his family and many friends. It’s filled with color photos, childhood stories from his native Pagsanjan, Laguna, Philippines and memories of important life events.
He spent nine years growing up in the country before World War II hit and the Japanese bombed Manila. At age 11, unbeknownst to his parents, he became a guerilla runner, covertly delivering messages to soldiers hiding in the nearby mountains. He contracted malaria and typhoid fever as a child, endured the Japanese occupation and, when the war ended, moved with his family to the burned-out city of Manila to begin a new life, which included high school, college and medical school.
Reading the 71-page book is a treat, as tasty as the coconuts he was taught to shimmy up a tree and grab as a youth. He recalls how his father threw him and the other youngsters into a fast flowing river to learn how to swim.
“We did not have a choice, it was either swim or be swept away by the current,” he recalled.
It turned out to be a good life lesson for Pabilonia, revealed in a recent conversation punctuated by warm memories and frequent smiles.
Q: What is your secret for leading a long and successful life?
A: First and foremost, I believe in God. If I did not believe there is God, I wouldn’t be here today.
I believe in work. To me, I consider work therapeutic in itself. I started earning a few pennies when I was 9 years old and I never stopped working until I retired on my 85th birthday.
I believe in being a good leader when given the opportunity and an excellent follower when necessary.
I believe in maintaining good physical and mental health. This means I believe in avoiding harmful habits including the use of recreational drugs, tobacco and alcohol. This involves the use of creative and enjoyable activities such as gardening, sports, painting, woodworking, photography and healthy entertainment.
To be successful in life, I think these are important: having good intelligence, good common sense, being considerate and respectful, having confidence, good humor, being a risk-taker, considering opportunities at all costs, having integrity and determination, and being quick at making decisions.
And I cannot emphasize enough the importance of friends and family. A very important factor is finding the right person to be with you for the rest of your life. This is the hardest one, because it takes luck, blessings, and even after finding one, it takes hard work to maintain a relationship as in yin and yang. That is where the power of love comes in.
Q: At what age did you know you wanted to be a doctor?
A: Medicine was probably my second choice. I wanted to be an architect. My father was a farmer and a builder – he built houses and churches and I would do the drawings for him, because he only went to the third grade.
But I grew up in the Philippines, and there, you cannot go against your parents. You are not given a choice. When I was in high school, I told my father I wanted to be an architect and he said, ‘No. You are going to be a doctor.’ He said, ‘You know how to draw, and you can do that on your own, but you will be a doctor.’
My father was the oldest in his family and in the Philippines, when you are the oldest, everyone has to listen to you, even your nieces and nephews. He was strict, but he was fair. I would be the first – and only – doctor in my family.
After I became a doctor, I was glad he did it, but I never told my children what to do with their lives. I gave them the chance to have a choice to do something they wanted to do, something they would be good at.
Q: What have you enjoyed most, working as a child psychiatrist?
A: I would not have done any other kind of psychiatry. Where else would I get paid to be entertained by my clients? I enjoyed my work. Some of my patients would even leave my office laughing. They’d say to the receptionist on the way out, ‘That doctor is crazy!’ I always use humor and you cannot teach that, it has to be your own. You have to entertain them, act like a kid. I think that’s part of the reason I look younger than 85 – because I worked with kids.
Q: What were the biggest changes you saw in the nearly 60-year span of your career?
A: I used art therapy for a while and that allowed me to see things they didn’t realize and I could ask questions about their art. I’d use it individually and in group therapy.
But the trend now is you’ve got 15 minutes to see a patient – they just want you to do a consultation, write a prescription and talk to the parents – all in 15 minutes. Therapy is being given to the social workers and psychologists. The insurance companies are in control of the doctors.
The majority of kids I saw at the clinic were having difficulty sleeping and the parents just wanted a prescription. They want a magic medicine to help their kids sleep. But I use some old techniques. I tell them to have their children be active, get them books to read at night – they’ll get tired. Turn off the technology...
All of this technology will hurt our kids in the future. At 6 p.m., we ate at the same time, at the same table each night and we talked. Now, no one talks, they text, instead of communicating in person. That’s the worse thing.
Q: It seems with all of the medical advances we have made, the brain is the final frontier. Do you agree?
A: There are a lot of things to learn, a lot nobody knows.
The hardest part of retirement for me is leaving the kids at the clinic because we don’t see that many people going into child psychiatry around here. It took me a long time to retire for that reason.
Q: How did you decide to write your memoirs?
A: I started writing it when I turned 80 and it took me four years. I gave a copy to my family at Easter.
These were the decisions I made in my life. I left my wife and four children with my parents in the Philippines to come here to study because they were not allowed to come with me. In some ways, it was selfish that I came here. Does the end justify the means? I want my kids to know this…
I did try to correct it. I worked a lot. I worked two jobs in the beginning, but I had to. I had a family in the Philippines and another family here. Was that a good decision? What do you do about that?
I took a writing class at Niagara University, my friend Dottie Gara told me about it. I had written reports for the courts for work, but nothing like this. My wife helped me with the English – it’s not my native language. She helped me with editing and grammar.
I didn’t keep diaries or I think there would have been a lot more (content). My friends say, ‘You’ll have to write another one.’ (laugh)
Dr. Pabilonia’s autobiography is available at cost for $20 by contacting him at: email@example.com.