Philippine Daily Inquirer
Red Cross Rose, volunteer for 60 years, and counting
ROSA ROSAL, the femme fatale of Philippine movies in the 1950s, is now 78. And for the past 60 years she has worked as a volunteer of the Philippine National Red Cross.
For the interview with the INQUIRER, she is dressed in a classic combo of yellow blouse, black slacks and metallic slides. Her walk is stilted because of a bad knee.
“I live comfortably. My godly-mother taught me to save the money I earned in the movies. I don’t have branded clothes; the only thing really that I take care of is my face. I buy the most expensive foundation, La Prairie,” says Rosal (Florence Danon in real life).
Seeing that one is taken aback by this revelation, she says: “There are times naman when you have to invest, to look good, and I’ve been that way [since]. You’ll never catch me at the grocery store wearing a duster.”
Rosal volunteers that she had “a very unfortunate-marriage.”
She recalls: “I was very popular when I got married. I married an American (Walter Gayda), and I thought it was for keeps. ‘Yun pala, he
couldn’t take my popularity. Five days after we were married, he walked out on me. Five days.
“So I was married, but I’ve never been a wife. But I had the [Philippine Red Cross] to fall back on. My concentration [has always been] here.”
“You have to accept God’s will,” says Rosal, a born-again Christian. “I’ve had so many trials inmy life. Like, imagine, five days were all the time that my husband spent with me. Everywhere I went, I was Rosa Rosal. He took me to Hawaii for our honeymoon, and I was still known there. He couldn’t accept it, so he left me.”
But, says Rosal, “I survived… I guess it was destined to be that way. It says in the Bible, God is a very jealous God, so He probably wanted me all to Himself.
“I would not have been able to concentrate on our marriage, anyway, because I’m a very focused person. And if I were married… I would not give full attention to what He wants.”
Rosal says she does not mind discussing the inevitable:
“I’m very open talking about death. I lost one grandson (Edward James Lim) last March 19. Freak accident. But life has to go on although I miss him very, very much.
“Toni Rose (Gayda, her only child and Edward’s mother) said, ‘ Mommy, God was really going to call him on March 19 at 6:30 in the morning. It was written when he was born. If he didn’t die here, he would have died somewhere else.’
“I’m 78 this year. How many more good years have I got? When I die, I want to be cremated right away. And please don’t give me flowers, give me money [for the Red Cross]. We can’t give away blood for free.
“As Toni Rose said, ‘My mommy, even when she’s about to be buried, she’ll say, please give blood.’”
60 and counting
More than half a century before Hollywood stars thought of using their celebrity to push humanitarian causes, Rosal, then the reigning “Queen of Philippine Movies,” was urging Filipinos to donate blood and soliciting funds for the Red Cross.
And after 60 years of volunteer work, she does not plan to retire.
“I grace engagements all the time because I know [that if I am present], I would get more money and more blood. My knee has gone bad, but once you start a good thing, it stays,” Rosal says.
“I like being able to come here [to the Red Cross headquarters] early. I wake up at six a.m. and the vehicle is there [at home] at eight a.m. to pick me up. I would also get up in the middle of the night [for emergencies]. I sleep with my cell phone on and when it rings, I respond,” she says.
Rosal finds it hard to turn her back on indigents who have no one else to turn to:
“I cry because I still get affected, because I know the people need [my help]. I know how poor they are; they can’t afford [medical care]. I don’t want any Filipino to die just because they lack blood. I cry and it still gets to me, even at the sites where we go. With the high cost of medicines, the senior citizens are more pitiful.
“I know I can’t be here forever. But if I have to get here in a wheelchair, so be it. I will still serve. Why should I quit?”
So involved is Rosal in her work that several times during the interview, she turns to her secretary to inquire about the status of certain donations or whether potential donors have been told of what the Red Cross needs.
Rosal fires instructions from memory. “The information is all here,” she says, pointing to her temple.
“My daily schedule is written in a calendar in my bedroom. I look at it before I sleep. I don’t have a Blackberry or any of that sort. It’s all complicated for me... My private secretary does everything for me. She knows how my mind works,” she says.
“But now I think my days are numbered. I want to go when I have to go. No one is indispensable. Whatever I can do, God will send somebody [to replace me].”
How did it all start? Rosal recalls being asked by Ray Higgins, former member of the then Philippine National Red Cross board of governors, to join a blood donation in 1950.
Higgins thought thatwith Rosal’s bee-stung lips and whistlebait figure, her presence alone would be a great come-on.
He was right, and she was hooked.
“Of course, [my popularity] helped a lot. I convinced people. It was terrific! My goodness! The more popular that I got, the more I was able to do for the Red Cross … ” Rosal says.
“It became a passion to me. I don’t know. I concentrated on the blood program for the simple reason that I know that when you give somebody blood, you give life … Before I knew it, I was in different blood donations. On July 4, 1950, I myself organized a blood donation at the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa,” she says.
Rosal now chairs the Red Cross board of governors and blood program committee. She also hosts “Damayan,” a medical-oriented weekly program on NBN-4.
A day in the life
On a typical day, Rosal attends “two to three” blood donation drives in Metro Manila despite the constant pain in her left knee.
She studies all recommendations for new equipment in the Red Cross laboratories and personally approaches possible donors formoney to buy these.
To date, she has filled up about a hectare in the Red Cross’ ground floor laboratories with the medical equipment needed for the urgent processing of blood, computers and other office facilities, as well as beds and tables.
Rosal says she takes it upon herself to improve the Red Cross’ facilities and find donors to finance its needs.
Early in her career as a volunteer, an acquaintance who donated blood commented, “Your blood bank looks like a slaughterhouse!”
“That’s how it was, eh,” Rosal recalls. “There was a doctor’s room but it was so ugly. So I took it upon myself … I was making a lot of movies then. I used my own money. I had the doctor’s room, then the bleeding room, renovated.”
Her popularity made the solicitation of donations easier.
“We added rooms and equipment as the doctors and technicians saw the need,” she says.
In the late 1970s, a challenge presented itself.
Rosal had enough equipment to put up an independent clinical lab for the sole use of the Red Cross—enough for it to conduct blood tests for indigent patients.
But then the Health Ministry’s Virginia Basaca refused to give the Red Cross a license to operate.
Minutes of a meeting on May 28, 1979, show Basaca arguing that the Red Cross “would be competing with other laboratories … doing the same service,” and that allowing its clinical lab to operate gratis would put the others out of business.
“But I insisted,” Rosal says. “I sat [in her office] until I convinced her. Literally every day. ‘You won’t stop?’ she said. ‘But it’s needed,’ I said. Nowwe have the clinical laboratory with enough equipment so that indigents can come here [for blood exams]. It’s cheaper.”
One thing is clear, Rosal says: “God always provides.”
She says that when she started at the Red Cross, she had no official car.
“I had used my own car since [President Ramon] Magsaysay’s time. Only during the time of President Joseph Estrada was I given a vehicle, a brand-new Prado. I’m still taking care of it,” Rosal says.
“I’m persistent in everything. Really. And I’m disciplined. They all know it. When you want something, you’ve got to pursue it. You don’t just talk about it,” she says.
‘Look, I’m crying’
The Red Cross receives only P1 million a year from the Department of Health and a supposed monthly P1.25 million from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) for the use of indigent patients.
“What I would like to see before the Lord takes me home—oh, look, now I’m crying—is for the government to support the blood program. I want more money for the blood program. I would like a situation where every Filipino who comes to us can be given blood for free,” Rosal says.
While all blood given by the Red Cross is free, processing it requires extensive lab procedures, personnel and electricity.
“We must first make sure that the blood is tested and is assured safe before it is given to a patient. Processing takes a lot of our resources. While the lab here in Manila is fully equipped, I would like to see that the 96 other chapters also have their own equipment,” Rosal says.
The Red Cross gets “around P200 million annually from private sources,” she says.
Also, Rosal has personally asked certain Filipino A-listers to donate equipment. Their names are posted on top of the equipment whose purchase they funded.
And the producers of the musical “Cats” have pledged to turn over more than P2 million of their revenues—a collectible that she intends to use to buy two Hi-Ace vans that will transport medical personnel to outof-town blood drives.
Request for P-Noy
Rosal plans to ask President Aquino “to consider giving us P4 million a month at least” for the Red Cross blood program.
She says the moneywill be used for blood processing and testing.
“We will also pay for plastic bags and reagents to make sure the blood is safe, that it does not contain deadly viruses like HIV or malaria,” she says.
The law allows the Red Cross to charge aminimal fee for blood processing expenses. Obtaining blood from the Red Cross, Rosal insists, “is still cheaper compared to what is charged by a private hospital. But everything would be free if covered by a government agency like the PCSO.”
“Anything I ask for is specified. If the technical staff says, ‘This is what we need,’ I’d ask for the brochure and study it. I’d then approach the donor and ask for it,” Rosal says.
“Just P4 million a month for indigents, that’s all I’d ask. At least that would be a load off our shoulders, and that would give more dignity to the poor,” she says.
All private donors of the Red Cross are “updated on where their contributions go,” Rosal says.“We have a donor who funds a patient’s dialysis at P10,000 a month. I make sure the patient writes directly to the donor to thank him. I can assure [Mr. Aquino] of the same kind of transparency. It’s got to be; otherwise I would not have lasted for 60 years in thework that I’m doing.”
Reader’s Digest recently named Rosal the “Most Trusted Filipino,” a recognition that, as expected, she intends to use to lure in more donors.
She believes her credibility stems from her refusal to accept any government post since she began volunteer work.
“I have never accepted a position in the government. For what? I want the Red Cross to remain apolitical. All these [projects] I was able to complete without asking for anybody’s [pork barrel]. No politics is involved. I can approach any President [with clean hands], with no association with any political group. And besides, there is no politics in blood,” she says.
Rosal believes it is the professionalism and work ethic she learned as a contract star of LVN Studios that got her going in the Red Cross.
“When I was making movies, I was always on time. When the call was at 7:30, I was there all made up at 7. That’s why I never got a scolding from Doña Sisang (de Leon, LVN owner),” she recalls.
Few know it but Rosal’s hourglass figure in her prime served as the template for the Famas award trophy.
And her sensuous lips preceded Angelina Jolie’s by 50 years.
Did she realize then that she was hot property? “I knew. And I made sure [everyone] knew that I knew,” she says with a smirk.
The one-time film extra who would later win her share of Best Actress trophies wore “backless dresses when it rained and a turtleneck when it was sunny.”
“I wore shorty-shorts. I made sure I got noticed. I would let downmy long hair,” she says.
In a move that Paris Hilton would replicate one day, Rosal once walked a dog down the then Dewey Boulevard dressed in a va-va-voom outfit.
“I just heard something go bogbog-bog! I was surprised to see that four vehicles had collided because the drivers were all looking atme,” she says amusedly.
“I was hot copy at that time. And I loved being the contravida (bad girl). The ‘good girl’ was sweet na sweet. What kind of acting was needed there?”
Rosal’s bad-girl image led her to a role that required her to ride a motorcycle and shoot some scenes with a bike-riding male posse on the highway from Manila to Nueva Ecija.
Other roles required stunts that included fencing and jumping from a window and landing on the back of a running horse.
While watching a retrospect of black-and-white films in a recent festival, Rosal noticed a young actress skillfully fighting off her enemies with a sword.
“Wow, that kid is great with a sword! Who’s that?” Rosal said.
“That’s you,” her bewildered companion said.
Rosal says some of her fans took a while to reconcile her onscreen persona with her true personality, especially when she was out assisting in blood donation drives.
“It took time before people realized I had a heart for the poor,” she says. “Kontrabida ako, but after 10 years, they accepted me for what I am.”