Late millionaire surgeon's last words on money, Ferraris, and true joy

PHOTO: Late millionaire surgeon's last words on money, Ferraris, and true joy

SINGAPORE - He had everything by the time he was in his 30s: wealth measured in millions of dollars, a thriving aesthetics practice and sports cars, including a Ferrari 430.

Money, by Dr Richard Teo Keng Siang's own admission, was everything. Since young, his driving ambition was to win, and through winning, reap the rewards of the good life.

In medicine, he chose the quick way to big bucks - by switching from ophthalmology to aesthetics. It paid handsomely. In the first year, his cosmetic surgery clinic "was raking in millions".

But in March last year, Dr Teo, a light smoker, was struck down by terminal lung cancer. And his attitude changed.

When the "music's over", Dr Teo realised that happiness didn't come from enriching oneself.

Joy comes from celebrating life with those around you, whether with laughter or sorrow. Now it is his message, not his riches, has become his legacy.

Videos of his speeches and his quest to reach out to others in hardship over the last 19 months went viral after he died on Oct 18 at age 40.

Netizens laud him for sharing and being bravely honest.

Says his wife, who prefers to be known only as Mrs Teo: "Honestly, I have mixed feelings. From a selfish point of view, I didn't wish he was my husband (struck with cancer).

"But I'm proud of him for leaving a legacy. I wished I could be like him. He is the best teacher God has sent to me."

The couple were married for six years and have no children.

Dr Teo's message was powerful and moving only because it was plain and simple: Life is too short to neglect those around you.

What Dr Teo did was to place a mirror in front of those who ceaselessly chase riches, especially those in the medical fraternity.

Everyone will eventually die. The critical question he asked was: Are you going to make a difference to other people's lives in your lifetime?

"I'm a typical product of today's society," said Dr Teo, in an excerpt taken from one of his speeches last November.

"From young, I've always been under the influence and impression that to be happy is to be successful. And to be successful is to be wealthy. So I led my life according to this motto."

Until March 11, 2011.

It was the day a tsunami left a trail of death and destruction in Japan.

At home, Dr Teo and his wife were overcome by emotion when they first learnt of his cancer.

What started as a nagging back pain was later discovered to be lung cancer.

Further tests confirmed the bad news - the cancer had spread to his brain, spine and dotted his lungs with tumours.

Says Mrs Teo, who is self-employed and in her 30s: "We were trying to deal with the shock and didn't know what to tell our parents.

"The strange thing was that just the day before, he was still working out at the gym."

For about a month, Dr Teo fell into deep depression. He searched for answers. There weren't any.

The physical pain after chemotherapy and the mental anguish took their toll. Mrs Teo remembers her husband crying to sleep frequently.

It didn't help that a specialist had been bleak about his chances: "At most three or four months, no more than six months (to live)".

That cancer had hit him in his prime was hard to swallow.

Said Dr Teo in a previous speech: "I couldn't accept it. I have a hundred relatives on both sides, my mom and my dad... And not a single one has cancer."

He had a thriving cosmetic surgery clinic which made millions in the first year of operation.

He loved high-society life and rubbing shoulders with celebrities. In his presentations, he showed pictures of himself with celebrities like Miss Singapore-Universe Rachel Kum and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

He loved life in the fast lane and owned sports cars like the Honda S2000, Subaru WRX, Nissan GTR and a Ferrari 430.

Says the late doctor's wife: "He really loved his cars. Once or twice, he took me for rides, but I really have a weak heart for his fast driving."

The cars had become symbols of his status. Yet in the end, they meant nothing to him.

Inner voice

Inner voice

"Chinese New Year... I would drive my Ferrari, show off to my relatives, show off to my friends, do my rounds, and then you thought that was true joy?" Dr Teo told dental students at a talk early this year.

"In truth, what you have done is just to elicit envy, jealousy and even hatred... In my death bed,

I found no joy whatsoever in whatever objects I had - my Ferrari, thinking of the land I was going to buy to build my bungalow, having a successful business."

His turning point came when he heard an "inner voice", says Mrs Teo.

The voice, he claimed, had explained that his suffering was necessary so that Dr Teo could learn. It also told him to help others experiencing hardship.

Mrs Teo says: "Something happened. It changed him and I could see he became more cheerful. I think he found his peace."

Among those Dr Teo had wanted to reach out to were single mothers, insurance agents, medical students, cancer patients and church members.

"He wanted to inspire those facing hardships, that life has more to offer than to be filled with hatred and emptiness," adds Mrs Teo.

In a speech early this year, he challenged dental students not to lose their "moral compass" and "know what it feels like to be in your patients' shoes".

He believed he had a "licence" to tell cancer sufferers to stay positive because he was also, after all, living their pain.

Adds Mrs Teo: "He really wanted the new generation of doctors to change their mindset. To treat patients as human beings and not just part of the job.

"For them, it's not too late to wake up and open their eyes... try to change the world and pay it forward."

Dr Teo was adamant in getting his message across even as he lay sick and dying.

A day before he died, his laptop was filled with new sets of photos to be shown to his audience, Mrs Teo reveals.

He was also working on a new speech.

Dr Teo on his pursuit of success and money

Thirst for riches

I am a typical product of today's society. From young, I was told by the media... and people around me that happiness is about success.

And that success is about being wealthy. With this mind-set, I've always been extremely competitive.

I went on to medical school, graduated as a doctor. Ophthalmology is one of the most highly sought after specialities. So I went after that as well.

In the process, I was given two patents, one for the medical devices, and another for the lasers. And you know what, all this... did not bring me any wealth.

So once I completed my bond with MOH, I decided that training in eye surgery is just taking too long.

And there's lots of money to be made in the private sector... in aesthetic medicine. So I quit my training halfway and I went on to set up my aesthetic clinic... in town, together with a day surgery centre.

You know the irony is that people do not make heroes out of average GPs, family physicians. They make heroes out of people who are rich and famous.

People who are not happy to pay $20 to see a GP, the same person will have no qualms paying $10,000 for a liposuction, $15,000 for a breast augmentation.

So instead of healing the sick, I decided that I'll become a glorified beautician. Business was good, very good. I employed one doctor, a second doctor, third doctor, fourth doctor. And within the first year, we're already raking in millions.

I started to expand into Indonesia to get all the rich Indonesian tai-tais who wouldn't blink an eye to have a procedure done. So life was really good.

So what do I do with the spare cash? How do I spend my weekends?

Typically, I'll have car club gatherings. I take out my track car, with spare cash I got myself a track car. We have car club gatherings. We'll go up to Sepang in Malaysia.

We'll go for car racing. And it was my life. With other spare cash, what do I do? I get myself a Ferrari.

It's time to buy a house, to build our own bungalows. We mix around with the rich and famous... Miss Universe... an Internet founder.

So this is how we spend our lives, with dining... all the restaurants and Michelin chefs. I was at the pinnacle of my career. I thought I was having everything under control.

Painful lessons learnt

Painful lessons learnt

Well, I was wrong. I didn't have everything under control. About last year March, I started to develop backache in the middle of nowhere.

I thought maybe it was all the heavy squats I was doing. So I went to SGH, saw my classmate to do an MRI, to make sure it's not a slipped disc or anything.

We had more scans the next day, they found that actually I have stage 4 terminal lung cancer. I was like "Whoa where did that come from?".

It has already spread to the brain, the spine, the liver and the adrenals.

I went into depression, of course, severe depression.

See the irony is that all these things that I have, the success, the trophies, my cars, my house and all. I thought that brought me happiness. But having all these thoughts of my possessions, they brought me no joy.

I can hug my Ferrari to sleep... No, it is not going to happen.

What really brought me joy in the last 10 months was interaction with people, my loved ones, friends, people who genuinely care about me, they laugh and cry with me, and they are able to identify the pain and suffering I was going through.

I was being trained as a doctor, to be compassionate, to be able to empathise; but I couldn't.

As a house officer posted to the oncology department at NUH, every day, every other day I witness death in the cancer department.

When I see how they suffered, I see all the pain they went through.

I see all the morphine they have to press every few minutes just to relieve their pain. I see them struggling with their oxygen breathing their last breath and all.

But it was just a job. I do it, I get out of the ward, I can't wait to get home, I do my own stuff.

I did not know how they feel, not until I became a patient. And, if you ask me, would I have been a very different doctor if I were to re-live my life now, I can tell you, yes I will. Because I truly understand how the patients feel now. And sometimes, you have to learn it the hard way.

Inevitably, all of you here will start to go into private practice. You will start to accumulate wealth.

And actually there is nothing wrong with being successful, with being rich or wealthy, absolutely nothing wrong.

The only trouble is that a lot of us like myself couldn't handle it.I became so obsessed that nothing else really mattered to me.

Patients were just a source of income, and I tried to squeeze every single cent out of these patients.

I'm not asking you to get involved emotionally, I don't think that is professional, but do we actually make a real effort to understand their pain?

My challenge to you is to always be able to put yourself in your patient's shoes.

When I faced death, when I had to, I stripped myself of 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.

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