Postcard from Zaharah: Doctors are our envoys abroad

It was a wet and rainy afternoon when I found myself in the company of some good Malaysian doctors discussing some very hot issues back home.

After downing the coffee and pisang goreng prepared by neonatal specialist Dr Zainab Kassim, I cautiously broached the subject about doctors and traitors to my esteemed and learned friends, namely an orthopaedic surgeon, an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine, an aspiring cancer research specialist and a specialist registrar.

There was a look of "no one sent me the memo" from all around the table.

The Malaysian doctors were apparently oblivious to the hoo-haa in cyberworld, which had erupted after a post branding Malaysian doctors abroad as traitors, especially those who were sponsored and bonded but chose to remain, went viral.

They were oblivious perhaps because they were either busy saving lives or doing other humanitarian or voluntary work.

For Dr Zainab and her husband, Dr Burhanuddin Busu, an orthopaedic surgeon at King's College Hospital in London, their conscience is clear.

As sponsored students in Ireland in the late 1980s, they stayed on after being given written permission to stay. Dr Burhanuddin qualified in orthopaedic while Dr Zainab in paediatric and then
returned home to serve in Kuantan.

They returned to the United Kingdom and self-sponsored to sub-specialise, after which they went back to Malaysia again to serve under the Health Ministry, working with several hospitals, with their contract being transferred to the Higher Education Ministry .

Since returning to work in London, the couple's dedication to the home country know no bounds.

They might have left the country, but many back home feel their presence through their
voluntary work and commitments.

Since 2010, the couple made trips home to help when medical faculties in several universities experienced a shortage of lecturers.

"We paid for our flight home to help out with the students," said Dr Zainab, who with her husband are members of SUMMIT (SGUL UK–Malaysia Medical Initiative; SGUL — St George's University of London).

The team members include Dr Yolanda Augustine, a Malaysian oncologist who co-leads a research programme at SGUL.

SUMMIT helps Malaysian doctors to get speciality or sub-speciality training in the UK.

The couple's giving back to the country doesn't stop with their medical expertise.

They initiated the Sabah English Aspiration Society in 2017 to improve skills in English among school children in the rural areas, providing them with books
and regular English summer camps.

"Our presence in the UK as specialists inspires those, especially in rural areas, that they too can make it, as long as you don't forget your roots," she added.

Dr Burhanuddin is unfazed by the accusations.

"I don't care about accusations nor compliments because whatever I do, I do it on my own free will and will do the best I can.

" If whatever I do gets the blessings of Allah, that is all that matters."

The term pengkhianat doesn't sit well with Dr Masliza Mahmod, who was congratulated by Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah on her appointment as associate professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Oxford University.

"We are all ambassadors who help spread the good name of the country. I connect with scientists around the world.

"They know me as a Malaysian and I am proud to carry the Malaysian flag.

"Whatever that I have done here is also a contribution to Malaysia," said Dr Masliza, who collaborates with universities in Malaysia as well as the National Heart Institute.

"Collaborations with universities also mean that I could create opportunities for Malaysian students to study at Oxford," said Dr Masliza, who said she had gone back to serve but is also paying off her loan.

For the next four years, oncologist Dr Siti Munira Abdul Jalil will be in London to study cancer research for her PhD at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, one of the top five cancer research centres in the UK. She is a Mara scholar.

"As far as I know, Malaysia has a good reputation abroad.

"It is by the good reputation of our predecessors in these institutions that we get to be here," said Dr Munira, who said she would go home when she finished her studies.

Dr Hairi Halimi, a specialist registrar based in London, is also puzzled by the name-throwing.

"Many British doctors go to work in other countries and there's no accusation of them being traitors.

"In fact, if you spend a year in Canada to gain experience and a couple more years in Australia, these people are celebrated," said Dr Hairi, who has been in the country for 16 years and is now doing a trainee specialist programme in anaesthesia.

He said Malaysians abroad are much more valuable with professional experience than just coming to study and get a degree.

They gain professional experience by being abroad and learning from other professionals.

Stories about Malaysian doctors abroad contributing to their own community are endless.

Last year, a student who arrived to study in Manchester met with a horrendous accident where she suffered head injuries.

Who were the first at the scene to tend to her and assisted her worried-sick parents while she was in an induced comma, if not Malaysian doctors, who were well established at the hospital she was at?

When two Malaysians tourists came to attend their daughters' graduation but suffered a stroke instead, and were warded for months, who took charge and went beyond their call of duty to liaise with the hospitals, arrange for accommodation for their grieving families, scrutinised insurance details, organised the repatriation back and offered their shoulders to cry on?

A group of volunteer doctors, well established in their own fields, did this outside their working hours.

The same doctors who worked with volunteer doctors from Malaysia, also extended their free services and more to baby Ainul, who came for her mouth cancer surgery.

And need I say, two Malaysian consultant and anaesthetist in the team offered their services for free.

I remember late one night, I was with two volunteer doctors assisting a Malaysian tourist who was left behind by her group as she had fallen ill.

She was all alone in a foreign hospital. One dealt with the hospital team, the other dealt with the insurance agency in Malay-sia.

A week later, one of the doctors assisted in a repatriation of another patient home.

Before I end, this brought back the first ever gesture of kindness to a fellow Malaysian in 1992.

A young couple came to London with high hopes and little money, for a living related liver transplant to be done on their 4-year-old daughter.

They only had enough money for the medical treatment at King's College.

The liver consultant who pioneered the transplant, a Malaysian, offered his services free.

I have nothing but respect and gratitude to these doctors, who I must say never really left home or their countrymen.

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