Sunday March 17, 2013
The writer in him
By SOO EWE JIN
IN one of his last articles for Fit4life entitled Cry me a river (Sunday Star, Dec 9, 2012), Dr Albert Lim Kok Hooi wrote: “If you have just been diagnosed with cancer in the last fortnight or so, have a good cry. Why not? It is sad and frightening news. There is so much uncertainty. There are many unanswered questions. Thoughts of death flit through your mind. All that you are used to may take on a new complexion. Let the tears flow.
“Then, wipe your tears and regain your composure, for the hard-thinking part is about to start.”
I always look forward to Albert’s column because it is written in such a candid and down-to-earth manner. He wrote primarily about cancer, giving useful information about the disease and the many issues that are part of the journey for both the patient and the caregiver.
He also took detours to write about life, and they were often witty and insightful.
Albert, who passed away on March 8 after a battle with cancer, clearly understood that one of the biggest problems faced by cancer patients is that upon diagnosis, they are inundated with lots of advice from well-meaning family members and friends.
In fact, many of them do not even get the opportunity to cry.
Some may be so overwhelmed that they dare not even ask the doctors for advice.
From my own experience, and also when helping others in similar journeys, I find that most of us are too scared to ask the doctor questions, and instead, reach out to others who are not medically qualified to do so. The doctor remains distant and cold when he should be our friend.
I am fortunate to have come under the care of oncologists who are not only highly professional, but also patiently answer my questions, including ridiculous ones.
I am also privileged to know other oncologists, both in the public and private sectors, who truly want the best for their patients.
And this is where Albert’s writings filled a critical gap for many cancer patients and caregivers.
For example, when I tell an over-eager caregiver who wants to prevent the patient from eating curry fish head, I would refer him to Albert’s column on the subject on why unnecessary diet restrictions are not helpful.
As a cancer survivor, much of what I say is already taken seriously, but I find that having a doctor confirm my opinions does make a difference. I would say something like, “It’s true. If you don’t believe me, I will get you the article by Dr Albert Lim that came out in The Star the other day…”
Although I would also tell them what my own oncologist said, they needed something in print and Albert’s column served that purpose.
It is amazing that people are prepared to accept all sorts of information, including all the hoax emails purportedly from Johns Hopkins University, to justify their actions, yet are reluctant to ask their doctors directly.
Albert addressed many of these issues through his writings and took pains to debunk the many myths that surround the Big C.
I have never met him personally, though I have waited outside his clinic when I accompanied friends who were his patients.
His obituary honoured him as a “philosopher, thinker, champion of human and animal rights, and an oncologist.”
He contributed to Fit4Life, but what is not known to many, is that he also had published articles in medical journals, magazines and newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times.
Albert wrote his first column for The Star outside of Fit4Life on Dec 6 last year. It was entitled, “Real pain of punitive justice”, and I edited the article for publication.
It was a poignant piece in which he argued that doctors are duty-bound to do no harm and should also not be complicit in any act of violence or killing, state-decreed or otherwise.
We had an interesting exchange via email about his piece and I took the opportunity to thank him for his writings in Fit4Life, which I said were very useful for those going through the Big C journeys.
After his article came out, he wrote to me, “Thank you for publishing my article on punitive justice. I received quite a lot of feedback, some in agreement, some in disagreement, almost all polite and thought through.”
And it was nice of him to add that he read my Sunday Starters column, and that “some of them strike a chord.”
The people who have crossed Albert’s path will remember him in different ways.
For those of us who have been through a cancer journey, either as a patient or as a caregiver, I would like to share his words of wisdom from the very first article he wrote back in May 6, 2007, about what people should do when visiting a cancer patient.
Albert Lim’s eight golden rules for visiting a cancer patient:
1. Always, always, always ask for consent from the patient or the spouse (or his nearest and dearest) before the visit, and do take the hint when you hear the hesitant “aahs” and “oohms”.
2. Keep your visit short. Fifteen minutes is a good rule of thumb, unless of course the patient clasps your hands in his and says ‘don’t leave me’, which happens more often in movies than in the hospital.
3. You really don’t have to bring flowers, Brand’s essence of chicken or the latest article on alternative medicine (ozone therapy or is it the cytotron?). Books and magazines are suitable. CDs and DVDs for those who eschew reading.
4. Please don’t say “Have faith” (I’m afraid mine is not that strong) or “you will be all right” (you know I won’t be), or any variation on the same theme. These vapid clichés will only irritate, depress and unnerve the patient. Such comments may even insult his intelligence.
5. Do something positive. Give him some money. Put his kids through college. Write a letter to a government department for the patient. Take his kids out for a meal and a movie. Better yet, change his undies and give him a bed bath.
6. Do not proffer alternative medicine.
7. Do not proselytise.
8. Before departing, say “Please let me know if you want me to come again. More importantly, please let me know what concrete thing I can do to ease your suffering” (See no. 5 above).
Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin (email@example.com) believes that when visiting a cancer patient, the best thing to do is to just hold the patient’s hand, listen, and say nothing.
The good doctor