We had learnt that Dr Ng Kee Kwong had been taken ill and that the prognosis was not good. But the news of his passing on Sunday last, when it came, was still a great shock.
I could feel the sadness in the voice of the colleague who called to inform me, and I was overwhelmed by the same feeling for several hours. We spoke to each other in soft tones, recalling several memories of our association with him, first as his junior residents and then as colleague specialists.
We belonged to different specialties, and so in later years our paths did not cross as often as the daily contact we had when we were his residents. Still, whenever we met it was with the same warmth and genuine respect for the one who was to us a master and friend from the beginning, the one who along with the other stalwarts of his generation guided our baby steps towards surgical excellence.
For he was an excellent surgeon himself, and as a true master, he prodded us not only to be his equal but to be even better! To say that he was an inspiration is to put it mildly. We still remember the first impression of this tall, athletic figure with a high forehead and brown rimmed spectacles, which enhanced his stern, scholarly look that awed us at first when he joined the SSR National Hospital in 1973. We were soon to discover that his look belied the heart of gold that lay behind it. What to say of his humility, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge which were matched by his skills as an hors pair surgeon.
Through the grapevine, we soon came to know that he had done his medical studies in Sheffield, England, and that he had done research in Canada. Of course, he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, FRCS. That’s what some of us were aspiring to, and no need to say we sought proximity to him and others with the FRCS so as to learn as much from them as possible. I recall that during a conversation one day he told me, don’t worry, you too can get the FRCS, it is not that difficult! That was by way of encouragement, but the truth be told: it is very, very tough!
One day when I was on duty in the Accident and Emergency Unit (‘Casualty’) I had a case that needed specialist advice, and Dr Kee Kwong as we more usually addressed him was on call. So I contacted him to seek the advice, and I can to this day almost hear his voice, ‘I am coming over to have a look’. I was taken aback – for in those days the older generation of specialists were so ‘upper-lipped’ and hierarchy-minded that they would not step into the Casualty.
Dr Kee Kwong and those of his generation brought a breath of fresh air into the tight, unhealthy relationship between non-specialists and specialists: they were much more open and friendly to the juniors, and that is a major part of the reason that the friendship persisted and even deepened when we later became specialists too.
On another occasion he was again on call when I was on duty at night in surgery. He had told me that he had gone to the seaside to spend a couple of nights with the family, but that he would be available on the phone and not to hesitate to contact him if needed. Which is what happened. There was a case of acute appendicitis, and after I had discussed it with him he told me to go ahead and operate. Unfortunately there was some difficulty and he had to come over.
It was nearly midnight by the time we were done. I accompanied him to his car, and as we stood there speaking for a couple of minutes, he told me reassuringly, ‘I am sure you could have completed the appendicectomy yourself, but anyway that’s fine’. And when I reiterated my apologies for disturbing him because he had to travel a good bit at night, he said, ‘not at all, it’s my job after all. But remember always: whatever happens, you don’t have to worry a thing, I take all the responsibility’. And that’s what made him, for us, the pillar of strength on which we could always lean at all times.
That was Dr Kee Kwong, who stood up for his discipline and for his patients. He never minced his words and shot directly when the occasion demanded. As when during a meeting with surgeons, a minister was exhorting them to do only one major case on their surgery list and many more minor cases, in a bid to show that under his watch the waiting list had reduced. If his objective was right, his strategy was not. And immediately, as I learnt afterwards, Dr Kee Kwong retorted, ‘Excuse me Mr Minister, I am not a minor surgeon. I am the one who will decide what cases to put on my list, not you’. Full stop…
Others who like me were lucky enough to train under him will undoubtedly have equally memorable episodes to recount about this wonderful, dedicated surgeon, who we looked upon as an elder brother to us in the surgical fraternity. No less a surgical giant whose legacy lives on through the teachings and the skills that he imparted to us his genuine admirers.
To his family and dear ones, we offer our heartfelt condolences, May his soul rest in peace.
Dr R N Gopee