At 47, Dr Timothy William is the youngest recipient of this year’s Merdeka Award for his contribution to the effective treatment of a new strain of human malaria.
HE was standing at the corridor, peering into the high dependency ward as I examined this young girl. She had septicaemia and was gravely ill.
His worried look, mixed with sadness, could only mean that he was her father. They came all the way from an interior village in Sabah to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Kota Kinabalu.
I had observed him standing alone many times by her side, day and night. She died that night.
He stood next to his daughter as I explained as best as I could. “Dia meninggal sebab kuman dalam darah (She passed away because of germs in her blood).”
We were unable to detect the causative organism. This dad then was left alone with his girl.
Another young man left his home and family to join the army. In the jungle, he developed a fever, rapidly becoming ill and died before he could even reach the hospital.
The cause of death was Plasmodium malariae malaria, which later was identified as Plasmodium knowlesi.
Grieving families and unanswered questions. Many of us have been there before, the waiting, the prayers, hoping and despairing for a loved one who is ill.
All human beings die. A hard fact of life, which we must accept. Dying because of an unknown illness, or a known illness, where there is treatment readily available, is impossible to accept. Every single malaria death could have been prevented.
This was the beginning of the acceptance speech of the youngest recipient of this year’s Merdeka Award, Dr Timothy William, 47.
The doctor, who hails from a small town in Banting and lives in Kota Kinabalu, worked tirelessly to find a solution to the rapid deaths due to infections by the P. knowlesi parasite, which have been occurring in Malaysia since at least the 1990s.
“Scientist Professor Balbir (Singh Mohan) and his team discovered that P. knowlesi was affecting hundreds of ordinary Malaysians. It affected thousands over the years, killing many. This meant that our clinical team had to urgently come up with the best ways to treat this disease and the public health team to relook their preventive strategies for this new form of malaria,” he said.
The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes which usually feed on monkeys’ blood. The first mention of the parasite was as early as 1932. People could get infected, for instance, when spending time in the jungle canopy being exposed to bites from mosqui-toes that would normally prefer monkeys.
“It was a problem in Sabah, where I work. Sabah and Sarawak have the highest number of monkey malaria in the world. Thousands have become sick and many had died because of this form of malaria.
“Unlike other research, medical research is not merely of scientific interest. It has to be done as a matter of urgency, with precision and accuracy. Often, the findings can be a matter of life and death,” said Dr Timothy, who serves as an infectious disease physician at Jesselton Medical Centre in Sabah.
Based on the findings of studies done by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, his team formulated management strategies, with the best medications to treat patients and save lives. These were also incorporated in the World Health Organisation and the Health Ministry’s management guidelines for P. knowlesi malaria.
Dr Timothy’s role model is none other than his father, former headmaster and church elder William Lawrence Doraisamy.
“He is a loving father who, together with my mother, brought us up well and taught us good values. He was a very hardworking and inspirational headmaster to his students.”
In his free time, Dr Timothy reads novels, spends time with his four children and enjoys a cuppa at a neighbourhood café with his wife, Aida.
“I keep myself grounded by reading the Bible and having good friends who are not afraid to tell me the truth. The work that I do is not any more important or special than the good work others do in their own field and profession,” said the humble physician, adding that his best career memories were seeing patients recovering from their illnesses, while admitting that doctors never forgot the ones that they lost.
Since receiving the prestigious Merdeka Award, people want to know what’s his next big endeavour. His answer is simple: “While being the youngest recipient of this award is an honour beyond imagination, my focus remains the same: the next patient. The award is a great encouragement to me to continue serving the people and doing research.
“I’m fortunate to be in a profession that enables me to help people in their greatest time of need. We must uphold the sanctity of our profession and be worthy of the trust put in us by our patients. They should always be our first priority. Everything else comes second.
“My philosophies are these: the patient comes first, a good doctor needs to be fully committed to the wellbeing of the patient, both kindness and competence are essential, respect for your fellow colleagues and continuous learning is vital.”
He strongly believes that Malaysia needs to do more research to find out what is going on in its own backyard.
“Other new emerging diseases like Nipah Encephalitis and Enterovirus 71 have killed many in Malaysia. I suspect that there are many more old forgotten killers and newer ones coming up. We don’t know enough and what we do know is hardly enough.
“Doctors and healthcare professionals need the tools and the information to combat these diseases. Our country’s aim for excellence in all fields has to come with compassion and justice.”
The finer qualities of Dr Timothy
Question: Do you have a favourite quote that you live by?
Answer: A verse from the Bible: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”.
Q: What message do you have for young Malaysians to inspire them to achieve excellence and contribute to the nation?
A: To quote Albert Einstein: “Try not to become a person of success but rather try to become a person of value.”
Q: What is your personal philosophy?
A: Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles and pray at all times.
Q: What is your message to younger generations of Malaysians who have ambitions to succeed in the same industry that you have?
A: My message to young doctors is that the patient always comes first.
Q: In line with Malaysia's 60th year of independence, what are your aspirations for Malaysia?
A: It’s my hope that the people of our beloved country will be truly united as one people and that we will be led by good leaders who love our country and her people.
ABOUT THE MERDEKA AWARD
EACH year, the Merdeka Award committee members will deliberate and examine the merits and finer qualities of each nominee and, in the end, identify those who stand above and beyond the rest, in their embodiment of the Spirit of Merdeka. This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the award. The award recognises and rewards outstanding individuals and organisations whose spark leaves imprints on the lives of Malaysians in the fields of science, technology, humanities and the arts.