Our Guest Today: Professor Sydney Chung
Prof. Chung was the President of The Chinese University Hong Kong School of Medicine and the youngest President in the school’s history.
While I was in China (March 2018) conducting research and recording episodes for the new show, I had the great pleasure to meet Professor Sydney Chung (钟尚志 / Zhong Shangzhi), who is a recognized expert and pioneer in medicine, particularly in the area of endoscopy.
Prof. Chung studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and worked at Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong upon graduation.
At the age of 50, he experienced his version of the “midlife crisis” and decided to go to Papua New Guinea, the Land of the Unexpected to work as a doctor for three years, often under extreme circumstances with limited medical and Human Resources.
What I also found out is that Prof. Chung was a key contributor (and known to be one of the heroes) during SARS in Southern China between 2002-2003.
This is a very short interview, only about 15-minute long. Prof. Chung had a busy schedule but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet him in person.
Transcript of Interview With Professor Sydney Chung.
Fei Wu [3:11] So thank you so much for being here. I love interviewing doctors and talking about medicine on the show, even though I don’t have any experience at all, I didn’t go to medical school, I have tremendous amount of respect for people in your field. Actually, I would love to have you do a brief introduction of who you are and what you do to my audience.
Sydney [3:42] My name is Sydney, and I’m from Hong Kong. I went to medical school in Dublin, Ireland. After I finished my training, went back to Hong Kong, and trained as a surgeon there. And I was fortunate, at that time there was development of endoscopic surgery, it was very much on the rise. So I was very fortunate to be there at the right time, worked in a medical school in Hong Kong up until I was 50. And then I suppose you can call that a midlife crisis. I went to Papua New Guinea, and took up the post professor there and worked there for a few years. Three years, to be exact. And that was the most rewarding three years of my life.
Why Do You Think 3 Years Spent in Papua New Guinea Were the Most Rewarding of Your Life?
Sydney [4:47] It was very challenging to be working as a doctor in the third world where the resources are very limited so we have no option. But to go back to first principles and solve clinical problems and make the diagnosis by listening to the patient, actually laying hands on the patient to make the diagnosis, and then to try to solve the problem with a very limited resources – it was very rewarding. I mean, here we could order blood tests, x rays, CT scans, and have range of various wonderful drugs and other technologies available to us. But when was in Papa New Guinea, we really had to rely on our senses to make the diagnosis. And then after we make the diagnosis by looking at what we have available, most of the time, we were able to actually solve the problem and make the patient better, and it was the rewarding part of it.
Fei Wu [6:01] I’ve heard so many different stories. And I’ve spoken with a lot of Chinese doctors, who in many cases, they’re still working in the US. I guess the salary is really good with a lot of rewards and a lot of resources.
Why Did You Choose to Go to a Third World Country at That Time?
Sydney [6:27] Fei, that has always been my dream since I went to medical school. But then I was working in Hong Kong, working in a new medical school. Life was really busy. And going to the hospital day after day, seeing patients, teaching students, writing papers, doing research. And then suddenly, you realize that maybe there’s more to life than that. Maybe there’s more to life than making more money. Maybe there’s more to life than getting more famous. Why not fulfill my childhood dream? I’m still physically and mentally capable of doing it. So I took a deep breath and left.
Fei Wu [7:15] Well, what was your childhood dream?
Sydney [7:19] I read stories about the Canadian doctor who worked in China, with the Red Army. And that was a story about him operating on the soldiers of the Red Army in decrepit temple, and he managed to save the life of the soldiers. I thought well, that was maybe something worth doing.
Fei Wu [7:49] How old were you when you read the story?
Sydney [7:54] 15
Fei Wu [7:55] Oh, wow. So one thing I read that jumped out at me was your contribution to SARS. It was so scary. I still remember. I was in the US at the time, but it was impacting my parents and everybody I knew in China.
Sydney [8:12] Yeah, thinking back, if you have a disease that you don’t know what it is, and you don’t know how it is spread, but all you can see is your colleagues falling one by one – it is pretty scary.
How Did You Manage to Stay in Hospitals During Sars and Keep Helping Patients in Those Scary Times?
Sydney [8:49] So I’m actually very proud to say that that didn’t happen in Hong Kong, because everyone, from the doctors to the partners in the hospital, stuck to their guns. In fact, the security guy, who was, posted right outside the hospital, came up to me and said: “Professor Chung, don’t you worry, I’ll stay here”.
Fei Wu [9:25] Wow, even the security guard. There are so many stories, I didn’t read any of this online. I’m just really thrilled to be part of this conversation. One thing I read is that you also authored a book in Chinese.
Sydney [9:42] Yes, it was translated to English as well, it’s called “The kindness cut”.
Fei Wu [9:46] Wow, I very much love that. I’ve had several family members who have gone through surgeries, and I lost my dad to cancer about 10 years ago. And he also went through surgery.
What Inspired You to Write a Book?
Sydney [10:05] Well, I worked as a doctor for a number of years. And of course, as a doctor, you can impact people’s lives by treating the disease, operating on them and also teaching in the medical school for a number of years, maybe the impact is bigger, because you can inspire and educate the next generation of youngsters to be good doctors. But then, if I write a book, if I can inspire more people to be good doctors, maybe that is even more meaningful. So that was the motivation behind writing about my own experience of when I was a medical student, when I was treating patients, when I was teaching medical students. So though, so many funny stories. I can tell as a surgeon, don’t ask the surgeon to start telling you war stories because there be no end to it.
Fei Wu [11:06] Well, maybe share one story if you have the time.
Sydney [11:09] One story, I think, in that book, that my readers have found more resonance with, was not actually a success story. It was a story about a very good friend of mine I had to look after. But I missed the diagnosis. I missed the diagnosis of cancer of the pancreas, and he died.
Fei Wu [11:41] To be able to talk about that must be really difficult.
Sydney 11:45] Oh no, to be able to face his family was the most difficult because his wife was so understanding, but his mother never forgave me.
Fei Wu [11:58] Hmm. I think it’s the toughest part of being a doctor – the amount of not just pressure, but the amount of expectation that’s left on you from so many different aspects. It’s not just the treatment itself, but also the way you talk to people, the way that you made them feel. And also, for you to have to do all of that, if I can just be honest, I think it’s too much because one area that I’ve inserted a lot of my energy into is palliative care. I’ve literally devoted the past year or so interviewing doctors from that discipline.
Sydney [12:35] My wife is a palliative care doctor.
Fei Wu [12:37] No way? In Hong Kong? I think that’s the most promising, the most needed field, and the doctors I know in Boston work closely with oncologists. So I interviewed both of them together. And I just think it’s too much for oncologists to have to do everything.
Sydney [12:58] I think you could say it because you cannot be a good doctor without caring. And yet if you care too much, then your judgment may also be colored. So it’s a fine part.
Fei Wu [13:15] I really appreciate you sharing that story because it’s a beautiful thing for me to hear. Thank you so much!
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