YOUNGSTOWN – In the 1960s, when Jaime Pabilonia finished medical school in the Philippines, ambition drew him to the United States. His connection to waterfalls led him to pick a job at a Niagara Falls hospital and a life in this county.
“I came from a small town that has a falls, a tourist area. … I have a feeling for the falls,” said Pabilonia, 80, a child psychiatrist now practicing at Monsignor Carr Mental Health Clinic in Niagara Falls.
His hometown, Pagsanjan, outside Manila, is famous for its Pagsanjan Falls, a waterfall in a gorge that lands in a natural pool.
“You have to go by boat, by canoe,” he said. “That’s an experience to get there.”
Those famous Filipino falls are, he said, a “tiny drop” compared with Niagara, which he has lived closer to for more than half a century. He remembers the day – Jan. 9, 1961 – when he first climbed out of a taxi in the City of Niagara Falls, just as a snowstorm had dropped two feet of snow.
“Getting out of the cab, I said, ‘What am I getting into?’ ” said Pabilonia. In the half-century that followed, he fell in love and married a nurse, had children, divorced and happened to fall in love again with another nurse, the one who took the same hospital job his ex-wife left open when she moved away.
“It was a blind date, by the way,” he said of his wife, Linda. “We’ve been married 33 years. … We’re doing everything together. Just like a complement to each other. Sometimes it takes time to meet the right person.”
Dancing 18th century-style dances with a group every two weeks at Old Fort Niagara is one of the pursuits he credits for keeping him young.
“How many 80-year-olds are moving around, dancing, doing the jitterbug, the rumba?” he asked.
Growing old, which he prefers to call “growing up,” includes the bother of arthritis and, as the years add up, the urge to leave town to celebrate his birthday.
“Children, grandchildren, they always want to give a big party. So I want to avoid that,” he said. “This coming November, we are going on a water cruise through the Mississippi. I already booked that.”
It is unusual to be practicing child psychiatry at 80. How do you take care of yourself?
I don’t drink. I don’t touch alcohol. I stopped that 40 years ago. I try to avoid medication if I can, even though I’m a doctor. My arthritis now is starting. There is that negative part about growing older. That is what I don’t like. How do I cope with that? I can just hardly move around this morning. That’s tough.
I go gardening as soon as I get home from work. I spend three or four hours in the yard doing what I do best. I belong to the Hosta Society, the Daylily Society. You have to be busy. You have to be active. I’ve been interested in gardening for years now. We have a fountain. We have a pond. We have different kinds of trees, perennials.
Our property across the street goes down to the river. I’m in the kitchen looking at my garden and enjoying the cherry blossoms in bloom right now.
I do Chinese brush painting. I take lessons. I’m involved in a lot of activities that make me feel young.
What do you like about your work?
I am really blessed to be working with children. When I was in medical school, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Kids are very difficult for a lot of people. They are very difficult to get involved in counseling. It is a really special type of person that feels they can relate.
I like the challenge of working with a child that has many, many problems. I can use art. I like art. I like to paint. I like to draw.
They show it in their actions. They show it in the way that they paint. From there, I can usually get something out of what is ailing them, what is bothering them: “Oh, my mom is so busy.”
They need someone to play with, to be at their level, to throw ball. I use a lot of activities. I enjoy that part, that I am down on the floor with them. Just playing.
Can you tell me about a child whom you helped?
One particular person I started knowing from the time he was 6 or 7. He was diagnosed as an autistic child. This particular child was having difficulty relating. I diagnosed him with autism.
I worked with him from the time he was 7 until he was a teenager. I used art therapy with him. He was excellent in drawing. He was excellent in writing.
At 16, he started working at Wegmans. A job in the vegetable department. You give him a job, and he will do it perfectly. He is excellent. He’s still working, and that was years ago. He graduated from high school. I went to his graduation.
Do you ever go back to the Philippines?
Since I left in ’61, I took my wife and my children back to the Philippines only once. 1985. It’s tough to go back to the Philippines. We have hundreds of relatives. Everyone thinks you’re a millionaire. They expect a lot. Even if you give them $50, they think that’s nothing.
My parents are both dead, and I am an only child. All of my relatives, the majority of them, have moved to the U.S.
Manila is worse than New York City in terms of moving around. It may take you an hour to get across. It’s very congested. It’s hard.
It’s a beautiful country. It’s 7, 000 islands. Some are small. There are only three big islands. We never have snow. The lowest temperature is 40 degrees. The scenery is beautiful. I do Chinese painting that depicts the scenery.
You can go far, if you have American dollars.