We talk to the DOJ undersecretary, who is already back at work after her recent hospital scare.
Emmeline Aglipay-Villar is busy, as usual, and we were lucky to get some time with her. Our online interview was sandwiched between two other meetings she had to attend, right before the rest of her workday resumed uninterrupted.
Em, as she is more popularly known, entered our Zoom call a glowing vision. There was no hint of her recent hospitalization, no evidence that she had only been discharged less than a week ago. Surviving sepsis is no joke, but it seems that she has recovered well enough to be able to go back to work while her leave is still in effect.
“My recovery is actually amazing considering what I went through. That’s what the doctors are saying also. I still have very low blood count so I might have another transfusion over the weekend. We’re trying to see if meds can somehow avert that,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) undersecretary tells Lifestyle Asia.
Villar had emerged victorious from her latest battle with Lupus, having been admitted for sepsis at Asian Hospital and Medical Center just last month.
“I’m still not really 100 percent okay, but I was able to go out of the house and go back to the office. Just to do some urgent stuff. And hopefully I’ll be able to work full-time next week,” she says.
Upon returning home, Villar was met by her daughter Emma, who quickly went in for a loving embrace. “We hugged in bed for a long time. Even when we were talking to each other we were just hugging,” Em recalls.
“She told me not to leave her for that long because I haven’t seen her for a month. So I was hugging her and she said, ‘Please don’t leave me for that long again.’ And I said I won’t. I said I’ll stay with her. And I told her I’d stay with her, I’d be with her forever,” Em shares.
“And then she said, ‘Forever, even after you die?’ So I said yes. ‘I’ll be with you even after I die. I’m just here with you.’ But I said I hopefully won’t be dying anytime soon. It will be still for a long, long time. But everyone dies, I said. And then we go back to God.”
Emma continues to impress her mother, who says she is unlike children her age. The child was not worried for herself, and was more concerned with how her father Mark would feel if he lost his wife.
Mark is Em’s “anchor,” always knowing what to do in an emergency situation.
“I don’t know what I would do without my husband. He broadens my perspective and aids in my growth and healing. Because we’re opposites in many ways, we see things differently and have different approaches to solving problems. We have the same interests and share the same values, but our differences help us both cope with our weaknesses and amplify our strengths. My husband is very calm and deliberate. In an emergency situation, he’s very collected,” Em says.
It was the former public works secretary who had taken care of everything related to his other half’s confinement: bringing her to the hospital, securing quarantine exemption, ensuring the best possible treatment, contacting hospital management, even managing to find blood donors, and taking care of her at the hospital.
“He always brings me back to what is important—to the practical scenario and the positive side of things. And so it grounds me,” Em shares. Her husband, she says, was the most instrumental person in saving her from what could have been her death, even up to her healing post-discharge.
“It’s not just a physical battle that I had to go through,” she says. “It was also an emotional one since the sepsis is really something grave. And I don’t want to really go into the details, but it took a lot from me. My husband provided comfort and is such a blessing to me.”
Back to work
Although Em appreciates all of her husband’s qualities, she says that herself being the exact opposite comes in handy for the type of work she does at the DOJ.
“I micromanage. I look at every detail—all the details,” she says. “And I’m a perfectionist. I want everything, every single detail to be perfect. I have to review important documents several times, think over Resolutions to Petitions for Review carefully, and make sure laws and jurisprudence are combed when doing research. Because of all of these, I often get stressed. But I am learning to manage it.”
Her range of work involves assisting the Secretary of Justice in handling requests for a DOJ Opinion and reviewing government contracts and loans, commenting on pending bills and other related tasks, and basically devouring all sorts of legal documents that are vital in government processes.
Aside from Em’s work as undersecretary in charge of the Legal Staff of the DOJ, she handles the department’s gender and special protections group. This means she takes care of programs for women, children, and persons with disabilities.
As Undersecretary in charge of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, Em leads a team of around 180 people in the DOJ handling government efforts to combat human trafficking. This includes online sexual exploitation of children, which is one of her main advocacies as an undersecretary.
“Because of all the work that we’ve been doing, the Philippines has maintained its Tier 1 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons Report for six years. I’ve only been with the DOJ since 2018, but to be able to sustain that ranking is something to be really proud of,” she says, explaining that such achievement involves stringent evaluation and exceeding one’s own performance annually.
If anything, her family wants her to work less hard. Mark even turns the lights off on Em when she’s staying up in an effort to get her to rest. To her credit, she said she has begun changing her working habits to accommodate her family and self.
For the meantime, Em plans on spending the holidays with her and Mark’s immediate family and maybe just some close friends. She’s received invitations from others, but her itinerary would depend on her body.
“But then the past days I felt that I was able to walk around and do more things than I expected my body to be able to do, so I might reconsider that. And I might attend some Christmas gatherings but of course, considering that there is still the threat of COVID and the new variant, we’ll still be very careful.”
For now, flying is out of the question, at least literally for the “Lupus warrior” who has figuratively soared to new heights in her personal and professional life thanks to her unwavering hope in herself and God.
Maybe the next chapter will be about teaching law or helping out in the family business, Em says. All she knows for sure is that she is ready for anything.
Photos by KIERAN PUNAY of Studio 100