Anecdotes from a mission doctor’s 14-year posting in the mountainous terrain of Yunnan, China.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
Instead of sterile hospital bedsides, Dr. Tan Lai Yong did his “rounds” on the mountainous terrains of Yunnan in China. And instead of elite medical students from Ivy League universities, he trained and taught 14-year-olds and farmers to treat common but life-threatening ailments such as diarrhea, infectious diseases and advocates preventative healthcare.
For 14 years, Tan dedicated his life to teaching villagers in the remote location of Xishuangbanna to treat themselves—after all, the nearest hospital is about four to six hours away by car, on top of another hour’s walk on foot. Having returned to Singapore for good late last year, Tan shared his experiences as a guest speaker at the monthly U@live forum at the Shaw Alumni House at the National University of Singapore on April 27.
Raised in a working-class household with six other siblings, Tan grew up inspired by the works of Singapore’s pioneering missionaries in Africa; by the time he graduated from the NUS Medical School in 1985, he had made up his mind that he would not be just an ordinary doctor.
In 1996, after serving in the local prison clinics, he moved to the remote region of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China with his family to work as a mission doctor. He became part of the Village Doctor Training Program which taught villagers to identify common illnesses in order to treat their communities. Taking on a day job as a lecturer at the Kunming Medical College, he designed a two-year curriculum where students as young as 14 learned to diagnose and treat patients by shadowing the certified doctors.
Early challenges included communication barriers because he could not speak Chinese, but he quickly sidestepped the problem by employing interactive teaching and roped in the brightest students in the class to help.
The oftentimes frustrating hospital bureaucracy also taught him to manage his emotions in complicated scenarios—such as the time when he was instructed to dispose of a diabetic patient’s gangrenous leg.
His biggest advice to Singaporeans who aspire to do what he has done is to “come with a learning heart,” to avoid imposing changes or introducing methods that could be irrelevant or even harmful to the locals.
Despite an extremely soft-spoken and humble demeanor, Tan was an animated speaker and had a knack for delivering punch lines. When asked about the most precious takeaway from the experience, Tan replied, “We’ve made many friends, seen prayers answered and families blossom. For my children, the poverty they saw will be a part of their lives forever.” It also ingrained in them wisdom beyond their years.
One day back in Singapore, his then-5-year-old daughter was sitting beside her grandmother, choosing green beans. When her grandmother finishing sifting through the beans, she asked her granddaughter to throw the crooked ones away. She brought them to her father instead and insisted, “Why should we throw them away? They’re just crooked. If I plant these crooked beans, will the new bean seeds be crooked?” To which he replied, “No, the beans may just turn out fine and beautiful.”
“That day I learned a simple but profound lesson from my daughter. I also learned that beautiful beans get eaten,” he said to much laughter from the audience. Drawing parallels to his Yunnan patients with physical disfigurements or handicaps, he said that his children grew up around those who were different from them and learned to treat them as equals.
Another time, he descended upon a leprosy village, and his children wasted no time in chasing chickens in the compounds. The lepers came forward and thanked him profusely, not so much for the medical equipment and the team of foreign nurses and physiotherapists he had brought, but for bringing his children. “We have not seen children for 20 years. We heard them laugh and saw them play, and it’s wonderful,” they told him.
In late 2010, Tan made the decision to return to Singapore, in order for the locals to rise up and take full ownership of the projects he has initiated. Currently, Tan volunteers at a local health clinic for migrant workers. He is looking to pursue a master’s degree in a health-related field.
U@live (pronounced “U-alive”) is a monthly forum showcasing members of the NUS community who are championing causes for the betterment of society. Log on to www.nus.edu.sg/ualive for video recaps and other information.