THE exhilaration of sitting on the plane for the first time is something Dr Faizul Mansoor would remember vividly. A whole new world opened up for him as the young medical doctor travelled to Miri for the first time in 1983.
“That was memorable for me,” he says simply, eyes misting behind his spectacles. “Imagine that. I’ve never flown anywhere in my life. It’s quite sadlah that I only experienced my first plane journey at a late age of 24!” he recounts, chuckling heartily.
It was the start of an adventure that eventually led the Kelantan-born, newly-minted medical officer to call Miri his home.
For over three decades, he’s seen the town gradually metamorphise from a small nondescript town to a thriving city in current times.
The 64-year-old retiree has recently come up with a memoir of sorts, A Community Doctor In Miri, chronicling his adventures and events that unfolded in the then-isolated seaside town up in north eastern Sarawak.
It’s a “.story that changed the course of my life; that narrates how my story ends.” he writes at the beginning of his narrative.
“How are you?” he asks politely when we meet. This is a trick question of course, the answer to which no doctor, or even former doctor, ever wants to hear in detail.
He can’t help but look the part. In his neat slacks, pristine white T-shirt, the bespectacled man may not be actively practising medicine these days but like they say, once a doctor always a doctor.
Does he get fed up of friends and people he meets at parties recounting their ailments for his expert attention? I ask. He doesn’t answer, but the ice is broken as he chuckles in response.
“Did you read the book?” He ends my attempt at bantering with an eager question.
“I’ve not finished it,” I confess shamefacedly and his face falls a little. The pride is endearing, and the soft-spoken man sits back and smiles in relief when I assure him that I like what he’s written so far.
Why write a book? His response is a shrug and a grin. “My wife asked me the same question: ‘Why do you want to write a book?’” he says, adding: “I replied, ‘Why can’t I write a book?’.
“After over three decades of living in Sarawak and witnessing the unfolding of events from a perspective of medical doctor, I felt it was worth documenting. After all, as I told her, if nobody reads it, at least the family will have something documented!”
Born in Kuala Krai, Kelantan, Faizul spent most of his childhood moving around because his father, a government servant, was often transferred from place to place. By the time he was 15, they finally settled in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
“It was a turbulent adolescence for me,” he recalls candidly. Like other teenagers, there were distractions that pulled him away from his studies. He was placed in an all-boys mission school where he got involved in the school music club and participated in athletic activities.
“My social involvements shifted my focus from my studies,” he remarks but there’s an unrepentant glint in his eyes when he tells me blithely that back in the days, he, along with other schoolmates, formed a rock group and won a local talent competition.
A rock group? I stare at the gentle distinguished man who looks so far removed from any visions I have of ‘rockers’.
He laughs at the incredulous look on my face. “Well, it’s true!” he shrugs his shoulders and smiles.
In sports, Faizul excelled. He represented Selangor schools and participated in the Malaysian Sports Schools Meet and won.
“It was exhilarating to receive all that glory,” he recalls. But the limelight actually derailed his studies and as a result, he did poorly in his Form 5 exams.
In his book, Faizul reveals his feelings towards his sports achievements: “For a moment, I felt great but I soon realised that the feeling was only temporary. It could never match success in education. Such fame and glory I held in my hands like the medal, was only temporary and could easily be taken away if someone else came into the picture.”
He made the crucial decision then to focus on what he realised to be the more secure route - education.
“It was never my ambition to become a doctor,” he confesses, saying he wanted to be an engineer instead.
“I decided to opt for medicine when I joined the University of Malaya in 1976. With that, my athletic career came to an end just like that!” he says with a rueful laugh. Adding, he says: “Well, all my siblings went to the university. That was all the motivation I needed to pursue my studies. Besides, I saw my father so happy when I opted to do medicine!”
Medical school was a tough learning ground. “There were brighter students there,” he says, adding: “It wasn’t as easy as I thought. For the first year, I had to burn the midnight oil until 1 or 2am. I had to make the extra effort to keep up. I wasn’t the brightest but I certainly worked hard. It was a miracle that I got through my exams. Somehow I managed-lah!”
He adds that he owes his success to his mother. “She was my rock. Had it not been for her prayers, I might not have succeeded,” says Faizal, his voice low.
After completing his medical studies, he quickly signed up to work as a houseman at University Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
That marked the beginning of his career as a doctor. Housemanship was challenging to say the least. The volume of activity, the sheer numbers of people involved and pressure on time and resources can cause clinicians and patients to feel like cogs in the system.
While most students go into medicine with enthusiasm and a belief in the importance of empathy within their chosen profession, somewhere during the course of their clinical practice many become exhausted, tired and burnt out. “It was good training,” he concedes, adding: “Had I not gone through this process, I wouldn’t have appreciated the dedication and commitment of a doctor towards his patients.”
He took some time off after the completion of his houseman to reflect on the experiences that he went through and the steep learning curve he encountered at the hospital.
“For the next two months, my dear old dad saw me rotting away at home,” he writes tongue-in-cheek, “. and persuaded me to start work immediately. And of course, I said ‘Yes, Father.’”
JOURNEY TO MIRI
In late July 1983, Faizul received a posting order from the Ministry of Health, requiring him to report for duty to the director of Medical Services Sarawak.
Two weeks earlier, he’d applied to work with the Ministry of Health and was given three choices. What were your choices? I ask curiously.
“Well, I listed Kelantan as a first choice, Pahang as my second and Sarawak as third,” he replies, grinning. “Having gone through all the challenges in medical school, this was nothing. My posting marked the time when life actually began for me,” he adds emphatically.
He started working in Miri Hospital in August 1983 with great trepidation, apprehensive about not being able to handle patients with the limited skills he acquired back in medical school.
“In spite of telling the director of my inadequacies, he trusted me!” he writes. It was from 1983 to 1990 that he worked mainly at the Miri Hospital, with nine months in Limbang Hospital and about a year at the Marudi Hospital. These years of experience enabled him to learn the finer aspects of patient care.
Eventually, the time came when he needed to decide what to do next. Having seen the remote areas first hand and witnessed how villagers lived and the health issues that affected these rural folks, he decided he’d take up public health.
“Through public health I hoped to improve the strategies for disseminating culturally competent health information and programmes to communities that experienced health disparities, particularly when they’re geographically spread out or are in rural areas,” he explains.
The transition from medical doctor to medical ambassador was an eye opener.
In the 1990s, Miri and its surroundings underwent rapid urbanisation which led to an influx of local migrant workers from all over Sarawak.
Squatters increased in numbers and living conditions, along with sanitation, were compromised. This led to outbreaks of communicable diseases like cholera and dengue, with malaria being rampant in the jungles.
In the remote jungles where all the clinics were located, health workers worked and lived in extreme conditions — humidity, limited electricity, water supply from hills, rivers and rain.
Faizul writes about this succinctly: “The challenges became real the moment they set foot in any rural clinic, let alone a remote clinic, where the only means of transportation was by river. They now lived in quarters assigned to them. Armed with basic knowledge, they’re now entrusted to handle the community they served.”
Looking back, he saw how his staff matured into adults with the hardships they faced.
“I’m proud of their accomplishments,” he says simply, his eyes glistening. “As long as they did their work right, I knew then that the communities were in safe hands.”
The challenges were many. He had to deal with educating villages after outbreaks of diseases hit, and made many unpopular choices just to prevent further spread of diseases.
“Sometimes, we had to stand our ground and make decisions for the greater good,” he explains.
While clinical medicine is concerned with diagnosing illness, treating disease, promoting health and relieving pain and distress in individual patients, public health is concerned with improving the health of populations and reducing inequalities in health.
A pause, and he points to the book cover. “This picture says a lot,” he says, with a smile.
“My stethoscope and my Pentax camera bought with my earnings when I first started out as a doctor. I took all my pictures with that.”
He’s taken a year to painstakingly write this book. What are his hopes for those who buy his book? Another pause and Faizul eventually replies: “I hope that by reading this book medical students may be inspired to take up public health. Not many doctors venture into this field.”
When we think about the word “health”, we typically associate it with medical matters, so the definition of public health can seem a little confusing.
Unlike the practice of medicine in clinical settings — like a doctor’s office or hospital — public health isn’t a one-on-one discipline, nor do those in the field practice medicine.
Instead, public health focuses on improving and protecting community health and wellbeing, with an emphasis on prevention among large groups of people.
Those with public health degrees keep communities healthy through child wellness, disease prevention, education, disaster relief, clean water, access to healthcare and much more.
“Most of us rarely think about these roles until a crisis, such as a devastating disease, captures our attention,” he says, before concluding: “But public health officials on a daily basis sometimes make the necessary sacrifices — like my staff in those rural clinics of Miri — to keep people healthy and safe by preventing disease and injury. What could be a nobler endeavour than helping the masses?”
A Community Doctor In Miri
Author Faizul Mansoor
Publisher The Inspiration Hub
Pages 318 pages
Retails at MPH Bookstores