Surgeon bares his heart

MALAYSIA - The night before his open heart bypass surgery, plastic surgeon Dr Charles Lee envisioned a website which would be "a blessing to other heart patients".

Having one's chest opened up was "a formidable psychological trauma," he said, probably shuddering whenever he sees his surgical scars.

When Dr Lee was discharged from the National Heart Institute (IJN) in Kuala Lumpur in August 2011, he had many unanswered questions on how to manage his advanced heart disease and adapt to urgent lifestyle changes. He surfed the Internet for answers and discovered that many heart patients shared the same plight.

"I thought I could help provide some answers that heart patients were looking for," said Dr Lee, 60, during a recent interview.

Dr Lee set up a website, HEARTtalk (hearttalk.com.my), three months after his operation.

"The website offers insightful interviews with heart surgeons, cardiologists, psychologists, nutritionists and fitness experts on heart health and lifestyle," says the Kota Kinabalu-based surgeon.

"HEARTtalk is unique because the host - that's me - is a doctor and heart patient as well! The website is a source of information for heart patients because all the questions and challenges faced are personal," said Dr Lee, who conducts interviews with medical experts, takes his own videos and posts them on the website. He also includes personalities who will be an inspiration to others.

His first interview was with Dr A.G.K. Gokhale, a pioneer heart and transplant surgeon from Hyderabad, India. Dr Gokhale's advice to Dr Lee: "Take responsibility for your new vein grafts and enjoy your limitations (food). Live life to the full(est)." (Heart bypass surgery using vein grafts is a medical procedure to increase blood flow to the heart. In Dr Lee's case, the veins were harvested from his right thigh and grafted around the diseased blood vessels.)

Other medical experts currently featured are Dr Sandy Gupta, a London-based cardiologist; Claudia Rothhaas, a clinical psychologist from Sydney, and Prof Dr Robert Graham, executive director of Sydney's Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Early this year, Dr Lee interviewed Datuk Shake, Malaysia's singing ambassador, who was his schoolmate in Johor Baru. He was happy to be re-connected with Datuk Shake.

Dr Lee was browsing through an old photo album when he saw Shake. "We went back 46 years! We sang together in the school choir. Shake went off to Europe (where he rose to international fame as a French singer/songwriter in the mid-70s) and I went off to do medicine. We lost contact. I posted a photo of myself and Shake in school on Shake's website, hoping he would reply.

"One day, the phone rang. 'Eh bro, you di mana?' Shake asked. I said: 'Shake, I'm at the operating theatre. I'll call you back."

Dr Lee was attending a conference in Kuala Lumpur early this year, and Datuk Shake was in town. They had a great reunion and reminisced about the good old times.

Recently Dr Lee had a bout of insomnia. Dr Wong Mei-Lin, a clinical psychologist in Singapore, advised him: "Don't count sheep. Count your blessings."

He also interviewed Sydney psychologist Claudia Rothhaas on managing stress and anxiety, and she told him: "Be kind to yourself. Don't be too stressed out and drastic to yourself. Be gentle to yourself." It is important to understand the mind-body relationship in managing stress.

Dr Lee felt that the sessions with the medical experts were therapeutic. "They helped me to manage my own risk factors. I hope it does the same for other patients who are listening in."

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Lee went to Sabah in January 1989 to set up the first Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Burns Unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu. In July 2010, he launched the first endovenous laser treatment for varicose veins in Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei.

Over a tall glass of latte at Coffee Bean, Sunway Pyramid in Petaling Jaya, Dr Lee explained: "In chronic venous disease and varicose veins, you can see the enlarged veins in the leg. But in heart disease, you can't see what's inside your heart. You only know you have heart disease when there are symptoms and you have chest pain or a heart attack. Sudden death may be the only sign of heart disease.

"I operate on varicose veins and now those same veins are inside here (gently thumping his chest). Keeping the new plumbing system going is a life-long challenge. I'm so grateful to God for this second chance to make the right choices and live right," said Dr Lee.

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