Dr Tan Lai Yong: Going beyond the call of duty to open eyes and heal the sick

Dr Tan Lai Yong: Going beyond the call of duty to open eyes and heal the sick

Meet Singapore's barefoot doctor who has lived in rural China for the past 14 years

After 14 years, Dr Tan Lai Yong has called it a day in Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture. In 1996, Singaporean doctor Tan Lai Yong did what many Singaporeans would never consider; he moved to rural Yunnan, China together with his wife,Tan Lay Chin and then year-old daughter, Amber Tan, to fulfill a calling.

“The going away is a small detail -- the real thing is to bring wholeness, healing, and restoration to a community,” says 50-year-old Tan,  who was sent to China by his church, Bethesda Frankel Estate Church,as a cross-cultural worker.

“If my skills could bring some healing and joy to any community, then let it be my first aim.”

For the next 14 years, the doctor and his family lived in rural, mountainous Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. He met, diagnosed, healed and delivered villagers, and established a barefoot doctors medical program to give farmers basic medical training. He also helped with volunteer efforts for Singaporean schools and doctors.

For Tan, all these activities are about fulfilling needs.

“When you see a needy situation, on one extreme there can be apathy. On the other hand, there can be opportunity. In this case, there is a needy situation of people who are blind.”

The case he refers to is his collaboration with Dr. Loon Seng Chee, an ophthalmologist, to conduct cataract surgery for villagers in rural Yunnan.

Hidden agendas

Apart from the trials of getting there -– 16-hour bus rides, logistic and organisational nightmares -– the biggest hurdle was overcoming the villagers’ mistrust.

“When the villagers hear that there’s a team coming to give free surgery -- it’s quite scary for them,” says Tan. “They ask ‘Really? Should I go? Will I get cheated? Will I get robbed? Will I be beaten up? Will I be sold?’”

“They have their rightful doubts and questions. The first time we went, only one or two from the area came forward. [But] the word goes round and more turn up. But first, we had to build trust.”

Making a difference with Dr. Loon Seng Chee.Building trust involved learning the local ways and being humble. At times, achieving the objective -- in this case cataract surgery –- didn’t always solve the problem.

“In certain cases, the cataract was just a symptom, and tuberculosis was the problem. Some have it in them, in their family,” says Tan. “So we have to do something about it. So we sometimes say to them ‘if you want the cataract surgery, then get the TB treated first.’”

“One surgery is the tip of the iceberg. It gets the family together to plan and say ‘we will move towards doing the surgery.’”

Learn from, not lord over

Tan stresses that the medical teams do not simply go in, do good, and helicopter out. It’s important for them to take the time to teach, learn and exchange skills with the locals; Tan himself has helped to train over 500 local doctors.

“By partnering local hospitals you sort of build up their own capabilities,” says Tan. “So at hospitals that are doing three or four surgeries a day, we are helping them toward doing 10 each day.

“This rubbing of shoulders and working together will create an exchange of ideas -- from basic hygiene to more complicated matters. This is a useful skills transfer opportunity.”

The Singaporean doctors who come to Yunnan also take something back from their experience.

“The moment you come back to civilisation, you wish to hug your toilet bowl and savor the fact that you have running and hot water," says Loon.

"When you see how little they have in the villages, I’ll treasure what I have and I tend to complain less about life.” .

The villagers of Yunnan's Xishuangbanna region who Dr. Tan's helped to diagnose and heal for the past 14 years.

Back in Singapore

In November 2010, Tan returned to Singapore. He now takes classes at the National University Hospital for a master's degree in a health-related field and gives talks about his experiences in China.

“Singapore works,” he says, “I think if I were born in China I would be a farmer boy. That fuels my perseverance [to stay on for 14 years] to just help that one more farmer boy who could be in need.”

Those needs have changed with time. Initially, Tan had to deal with sanitary diseases such as malaria and typhoid, now they are giving way to lifestyle diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

“These diseases” Tan says, “you don’t treat with a pill. You’ve to interact with the family, individual, workplace, and community.”

Singapore has needs as well

While the needs of Singaporeans pale next to the needs of the villagers in Yunnan, they do exist.

According to Tan, Singapore's main healthcare concerns involve myopia in young children; the lack of support for the poorer folks such as elderly sick who have children with congenital illness or mental retardation; and the need to care for thousands of foreign workers in Singapore.

“Our friends run low-cost clinics for Bangladeshi workers who tell us their problems,” says Tan. “It could be a preventable work-style related disease, or it could be a legal work compensation problem.”

“We could be apathetic and say that the government will take care of it, or we could make use of the opportunity to meet a need.”

I am a computer dude and ex-academic (although I won’t say it too loudly) who took time off to tour Asia and write about it. And I’ve not stopped writing since.

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