On Monday 08 of July 2013, The Star newspaper had published an article about our Dr Chen Tai Ho, who frequently participates in volunteer programs to help the needy. The article is as below:
In an age of increasing medical costs, some doctors get great satisfaction from giving free treatment.
IT’S a sultry Saturday morning and the Sentul free Clinic of Hope in Kuala Lumpur is fast filling up. As the patients stream in, they leave their shoes outside the door and queue up patiently for their turn to see the doctor.
Being a friend: When she’s not in the consultation room, Dr R. Gnaneswari loves to chat with her patients in the waiting room, and get to know them better.
On duty are volunteers Dr R. Gnaneswari and Dr Chen Tai Ho. Dressed in an oversized top, P. Letchumi, 55, limps into the room flashing a wide smile as her name is called. A flower seller, she has been coming to the clinic regularly to treat an abscess.
“Aunty, what did you have for breakfast today?” asks Dr Chen as he examines the diabetic patient.
“Just a cup of coffee and a slice of bread,” she replies cheerily.
“Did you put sugar in it?”
“No, no sugar. Only milk,” she answers, sticking her tongue out like a little kid.
Dr Gnaneswari, who has been treating her these past few months for other ailments, knows the patient is not telling the truth. Dr Chen then proceeds to gently prick her finger to draw some blood. As both doctors suspect, Letchumi’s sugar is at a dangerously high level.
“Aunty, your reading is no good,” says Dr Chen. “You haven’t been taking your medication properly. I cannot increase your dosage any more. Have you finished your antibiotics? How is your wound?”
The patient coolly says she forgets to take her pills sometimes but that her sore is healing well. Letchumi needs insulin shots and Dr Gnaneswari has been trying to counsel her to go to the hospital but Letchumi cannot overcome her fear of hospitals.
“My mother had persistent stomach pain for a few months and the doctors couldn’t diagnose her ailment despite us making many visits to the government hospital. Eventually, she died as a result of a burst appendix which caused septicemia.
“So I will never go to the hospital. They’ll kill me,” relates Letchumi, still traumatised by the incident.
Dr Chen advises her to take her medication or suffer serious consequences. Letchumi smiles sheepishly as a nurse leads her into the next room to change her dressing.
Dr Gnaneswari turns to me and explains: “Her wound is slow in healing because of a lack of hygiene and uncontrolled sugar, but these patients sometimes don’t listen to us. It doesn’t help that she sits the whole day at the flower stall. Only when she gets really bad, she’ll come to the clinic. Threatening them doesn’t work so we have to motivate them to follow through.”
Patients like Letchumi are the norm, says the doctor, who has been volunteering her time at the free clinic for the past two years. They lead hard lives. Sometimes, Dr Gnaneswari has a tough time holding back tears as she listens to their stories.
Letchumi, an uneducated single mother, barely earns RM500 a month. Her eldest daughter works as a salesgirl in a fabric shop, while another daughter is a leukemia patient and needs regular treatment. She lives in a one-bedroom flat and some months, she defaults on her utility bills. Whenever she can afford it, she indulges in a plate of fried koay teow. She knows it is bad for her health but Letchumi says it’s her weakness.
For Dr Gnaneswari, who is freelancing at the moment while waiting to enrol in a specialist course, there is no greater satisfaction then helping the poor.
“When I was working in the government hospital, there was no time to talk and get to know the patients well because there were too many to attend to. Here, I feel it’s more personal. They also feel that they’re getting more attention here. I treat them like my family,” she says.
Instead of going back to her hometown in Johor Baru every alternate Saturday, Dr Gnaneswari, 30, is at the clinic from 10am to 5pm. If she is not in the consultation room, she can be found sitting and chatting with the patients in the hall. Patients speak highly of her.
Even as a kid, she had always wanted to do some kind of volunteer work and when she came across a web posting of non-profit organisation Hope Worldwide Malaysia, which was looking for doctors, she signed up immediately.
Set up in 2000, the clinic’s objective is to improve the health of the hardcore poor through education and compassionate healthcare, and offer free medication, treatment and counselling services. Since the clinic is located in Sentul, an Indian majority area, most of the patients are Indians or foreigners from Myanmar and Sri Lanka. During busy periods, there are around 50 to 60 patients daily.
“I wish I could do this forever but the reality is that I have to work to earn a living,” Dr Gnaneswari sighs, adding that she used to volunteer three times a week.
“Sometimes these patients don’t even have RM1 in their pockets or they haven’t eaten in days. Their pulse is weak, they feel dizzy or can barely walk. The children might be malnourished or asthmatic. It’s against the clinic’s policy to give them money, so I’ll run down and get them some food. They are so grateful for the little things. Thankfully, no one has died in my arms. I just want to save them!” says Dr Gnaneswari who dreams of running her own free clinic for the poor someday.
Most of the patients seek treatment for coughs, colds or flu, diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol. Because the clinic’s facilities are limited, the more serious cases are referred to the nearest hospital.
Dr Gnaneswari adds: “These patients cannot afford brown or parboiled rice, which is good for diabetic patients so they buy the cheapest rice or whatever is available.”
Like her, Dr Chen has been volunteering since his varsity days as a medical student, helping out drug addicts and the homeless. He has also gone on several missions with Mercy Malaysia, the volunteer relief organisation that provides medical and humanitarian services locally and abroad.
“I like to help the needy. Can I say it’s also for my bragging rights?” he jests. “Volunteering gives me a chance to travel and see patients out of the city. In the past, I only had to pay for my flight and everything else was taken care of. Now even the flights are paid for so I just need to be there to help out.”
Dr Chen, 36, formerly operated a private clinic in Penang for a decade before moving to Kuala Lumpur to open his own aesthetic centre and be closer to his family. Since he has three doctors in his team, he prefers doing volunteer work whenever he is approached.