New Straits Times
A TRIBUTE TO A WORLD RENOWNED LIVER SURGEON
Malaysian physician Dr Tan Kai Chah performed the first living related transplant on his first Malaysian patient in London in 1994
FROM across the operating theatre at King’s College Hospital, London, Dr Tan Kai Chah beckoned me over. Dr Tan had just operated on Zaini Othman and had taken out her liver, a portion of which was placed in a container filled with preserving liquid, later to be transplanted into her 4-year-old daughter, Nadhirah Zulkifli, who was born with a liver condition called biliary atresia.
Nadhirah is now 31.
Biliary atresia is a congenital condition where there is a blockage in the tubes (ducts) that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder.
Although I was hesitant, I did not want to miss this historic moment; of a pioneering Malaysian doctor performing his first living related transplant on his first Malaysian patient. And, of course, this life-changing moment for Nadhirah and her family.
The operating theatre was filled with classical music which Dr Tan said helped him in what was quite a major surgery.
“Come and see,” he had said. “After all you are going to see this when you are editing,” he added, referring to the now opened up abdomen of Zaini.
After closing her up, in the afternoon, in the same theatre, Dr Tan proceeded to transplant the portion of Zaini’s liver into Nadhirah.
That was the summer of 1994. A few months before, Dr Tan had made news in the United Kingdom, and in the medical world, for having pioneered a living related liver transplant, where a patient with a liver problem could receive part of a liver from a living relative.
It was a privilege to watch and document such a renowned surgeon at work. He was calm and professional, explaining the procedure that seemed complicated to a layperson like me.
Dr Tan had agreed for the whole pre-surgery process and after to be made into a documentary as it would be an educational one. Thus, the 45minute documentary for Radio Television Malaysia called Nadhirah Anakku.
My documentary team and I met him several days before the operation and had benefitted much from his patience and cooperation.
In order to get a whole picture of what the entire process involved, he had introduced and arranged for us to interview other specialists such as a psychiatrist who had to assess Zaini as the donor.
That was the late Dato Dr Tan Kai Chah or K.C. as he was known to everyone. Calm and reassuring and one who made you feel comfortable in whatever circumstances. His passing on the island of Hainan in China on Dec 5 while on a business trip came as a great shock. He was 68 with a lot more to offer in the field of medicine.
When I informed Zaini of the man who offered his services for free to save Nadhirah’s life, she and her husband Zulkifli Hussein were left in shock.
“He was one of the best doctors we had ever met,” said Zaini, recalling their first meeting in a lobby of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, 27 years ago.
Zaini and Zulkifli were introduced to Dr Tan by a friend who had read of the latter’s pioneering work in living related liver transplant in the United Kingdom when it was reported in the New Straits Times.
“We met to discuss our daughter’s medical problems,” said Zaini, remembering the very humble and soft-spoken doctor who was generous in sharing with them all the information of the liver condition that their child was born with.
With funds donated by a very generous donor, the family left for London.
“Dr Tan had treated Nadhirah with such extra care. He was like a friend, visiting us at our rented accommodation even after office hours to further explain about the operation,” said Zaini.
The Keluarga Malaysia concept was nothing new to Dr Tan who took the family under his wings way beyond his call of duty.
“This is something we greatly appreciated while being away in a foreign land. We felt confident and comfortable knowing that he was the one who was going to perform the transplant,” said Zaini.
When it became too much for Zulkifli to cope with his wife and daughter recuperating in different wings in the hospital, Dr Tan helped to make sure that Nadhirah’s grandparents could travel to London to give some emotional support.
The life achievements of the celebrated Malaysian doctor who graduated from Universiti Malaya in 1979 until his helming of the Asian Centre for Liver Diseases and Transplantation at Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore, were well documented.
He had performed hundreds of living donor liver transplants for adults and children.
While Dr Tan was also known for performing life-saving surgery on Singaporean actress Andrea De Cruz in 2002, he also treated Almarhum Tunku Abdul Jalil Iskandar, the son of the Sultan and the Queen of Johor.
The prince was suffering pains in his shoulders while holidaying with his father in London. On Dr Tan’s advice, they returned to Singapore, where Dr Tan and his team treated him.
Sadly, the prince died of liver cancer on Dec 5, 2015, the same date of Dr Tan’s passing.
In a tribute to Dr Tan on the day he died, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar offered his condolences in a Facebook posting: “Dato’ Dr K.C. Tan headed the team of the Singapore doctors who looked after and treated my late son, Almarhum Tunku Abdul Jalil, Tunku Laksamana of Johor.
“It is a strange coincidence that he passed away today, on the same date that Jalil left us. May Dr K.C. Tan rest in peace.”
Dr Tan was reported to have suffered from a heart attack. His passing will certainly leave a big void in a field that had benefitted much from his knowledge, dedication and commitment.