This week I came across a post on Facebook that shocked me whilst at the same time having a deep sense of resonance. It was about a successful millionaire cosmetic surgeon called Dr Richard Teo who surprisingly developed terminal Stage 4 lung cancer whilst in the peak of his health and career success.
It was a dreadful diagnosis for him, as at age 40, with a highly successful surgical practice, he was in the prime of his life. He was an avid gym goer and one day asked his friend and fellow doctor to perform a scan of his back, as he was suffering some minor back pain.
He thought it was a slipped disc from all the squats he was doing at the gym. It turned out to be tumour.
Several scans later, they found a lungful of secondary tumours, including in the brain, spine, liver and adrenal glands. He was given 3-4 months to live.
Dr Teo passed away in October 2012, but the post that I received on Facebook carried an important message from him. One that I wish to reflect and pass on.
He made a speech to a school full of dental students just days before he passed and recounted his story. It was an incredibly courageous speech as Dr Teo as he admitted to his deep desire to accumulate wealth, rather than care for patients.
Dr Teo was brave enough to share how he was attracted by the money in cosmetic surgery. His practice performing liposuctions, $15,000 breast augmentations and so on was prolific and he could barely keep up with demand, employing more and more doctors.
He commented on how vanity was a fantastic business. He did not see patients, he saw cheques and he had no interest in caring for them, he was numb to pain, only privy to material gain.
He talked about his Ferrari, joyrides to the Malaysian Grand Prix circuit, his social circle of millionaire internet founders, forex traders and bankers as well as stunning Miss Universes’. He was a long- standing academic achiever, amongst the best in the highly driven society of Singapore. Upon graduation, high achievement translated into financial success and in his mind, he had it all and money gave him the life that he thought he wanted.
In a way, I could resonate with this sentiment as I too had studied in the top academic institution in Singapore, Raffles Junior College, prior to studying medicine in the UK. And I could clearly observe the intense cultural pressures to perform at an ultra high standard academically as well as students being judged by material accomplishments, particularly the wealth of their parents.
Dr Teo’s attitude prevailed until that fateful day that he learnt he was not going to be around much longer, and money could not help him at all.
It was such a powerful revelation when Dr Teo, at this speech to dental students who were a few years away from being money-making machines themselves, educated the others on real joy.
Upon his diagnosis, Dr Teo realised that none of his material gains ever brought him real joy. He realised that he actually couldn’t handle all that wealth and it was only now that he could really feel for his patients, and truly understand what they were going though.
In life, he had lost his soul, but in facing death, he had found it again.
One story like this does not reflect on the state of practitioners of modern medicine. However, it did talk to a select few in the profession, particularly in the high-paying fields of medicine, who can no longer feel for their patients, but rather are driven by the financial returns that it brings them.
Here I would like to paraphrase Dr Teo’s own words of advice, and he says it best:
“Everyone knows that they are going to die; every one of us knows that. The truth is, none of us believe it because if we did, we will do things differently. When I faced death, when I had to, I stripped myself off all stuff totally and I focused only on what is essential. The irony is that a lot of times, only when we learn how to die then we learn how to live.
So if I were to sum it up, I’d say that the earlier we sort out the priorities in our lives, the better it is. Don’t be like me – I had no other way. I had to learn it through the hard way.
Few things I’d learnt though:
1. Trust in the Lord your God with all your heart – this is so important.
2. Is to love and serve others, not just ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with being rich or wealthy. I think it’s absolutely alright, cos God has blessed. So many people are blessed with good wealth, but the trouble is I think a lot of us can’t handle it. The more we have, the more we want. I’ve gone through it, the deeper the hole we dig, the more we get sucked into it, so much so that we worship wealth and lose focus. Instead of worshipping God, we worship wealth. It’s just a human instinct. It’s just so difficult to get out of it.
Anyway I think that I’ve gone through it, and I know that wealth without God is empty. It is more important that you fill up the wealth, as you build it up subsequently, as professionals and all, you need to fill it up with the wealth of God”.
Do you have a strong opinion on Dr Richard Teo’s advice?
To read Dr Teo’s full speech in its entirety, click here.