After graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Newcastle in 1998, Dr Chee Hsiang Liow began his career in Singapore, before joining Bless China International (BCI) in 2002. This NGO operates across China’s Yunnan Province providing healthcare, community development and child services to 42,000 people annually.
Chee is committed to improving community health in poverty-stricken areas of rural China, including designing and improving BCI’s Village Doctor Training Program, which has now trained more than 500 doctors.
Chee is a finalist in the 2014 Alumni Awards, in the category of Exceptional Community Service. We caught up with Chee, as he reflects on his time in Newcastle, as well as the work he has been doing in China.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into medicine?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I had always been drawn towards life sciences and biology in school. The lack of health care in developing countries prompted the idea of studying medicine so that I could contribute to the needs in these places.
During my interview for entrance into the University of Newcastle’s medicine faculty as an overseas student, that same question was posed to me as to why I wanted to study medicine. So in response (in my strong Singaporean accent), I answered, “I want to be involved in medical missions, to be a missionary doctor.” My interviewer frowned and asked, “What’s a ‘machinery doctor’?”
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
One discipline that terrified me the most during medical school was Population Medicine. Like most clinician wannabes, my strategy was to pass this discipline with the absolute minimum amount of work (never mind the low score). I knew for sure that once I graduated, I’d never have to touch the much dreaded statistics again. Calculating kappa has nothing to do with saving lives anyway!
In a most interesting twist of events, I ended up studying public health after practicing medicine for a number of years. The synergy between clinical medicine and public health (yes, including the once dreaded statistics) proved to be crucial towards working in rural health settings, particularly when one had to design innovative preventative health methods in large population contexts.
There are always unexpected events in my area of work. Delivering 100 samples of frozen commercial sex-workers’ urine by plane from my rural setting to a larger city in China (the nearest place for PCR testing) would be pretty unexpected. The look on the faces of the small local airport’s custom officers when they saw the samples were pretty unexpected as well…
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?
John Snow and his classic story on cholera influenced me quite a bit. He’s frequently quoted in my trainings. There are also a number of books whose authors’ lives influenced me significantly (Paul Brand and his work with leprosy in India, Ben Carson’s transformation from an angry child who almost killed his friend and mother to a famous neurosurgeon etc).
What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?
Although I’m passionate about medicine, public health and research, I see these only as tools to accomplish a greater goal. I am more passionate about building local leaders to help them achieve effective projects in any form.
Sustainability remains one of the greatest challenges in a lot of poverty alleviation work. We have seen many well-meaning projects started and ended as if the project had never been there in the first place (the ‘flash and ash’ effect). Building local capacity and leadership (and having an exit strategy right from the start) remain the keys to sustainability.
My passion is to build and equip local leaders in various disciplines to own, lead, manage and up-scale the projects in places of need. I hope they in turn will do the same – to envision and equip other local leaders to start their own projects using local resources. Many of these locals have great potential to develop into agents of change, limited only by missed opportunities in life. Seeing one of our local staff (with only a Primary Grade 5 education) presenting theories of behavioural change applied to HIV work to a group of local government and CDC experts (who literally dropped their jaws) gave me hope that this is entirely possible.
What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing?
Proliferation of sustainable, indigenous projects that improve and impact society especially in developing countries. We have seen a number of ‘home-grown’ projects led and owned by locals who had tremendous impact. There are just too few of these.
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
Marrying my wife of 15 years! We and our three sons have been living the adventure in China for the past 12 years. By the way, my wife and I met at Newcastle Uni.
What would be your dream project?
Using HIV genotyping in combination with recent infection testing algorithm to map out high-risk behaviours and sexual networks in high HIV transmission regions in certain border regions of China, so that more effective prevention strategies can be developed to curb HIV transmission. By looking at the basic reproductive ratio and the trends of HIV prevalence, we have reasons to believe that a strong unknown sexual networking is in existence in certain areas. Our HIV prevention projects target high-risk groups, but we suspect we are missing a key social network that may be hidden.
What was your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
It’s been a while since I’ve been to Newcastle. I’m pretty sure it’s changed a lot since I was last there. But I had fond memories of Thursday night shopping in Jesmond, watching movies in Charlestown, and good Jordanian food in a suburb I cannot remember.
Can you name a local hero?
That has to be Tommy Emmanuel (I hope Muswellbrook qualifies as “local“). After graduation, I amassed all my remaining savings from the bank and bought my first Australia-made Maton guitar. I had to because Tommy was using one. Seventeen years later today, I’m still using that same guitar in China.
What did you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
That’s a difficult question as there are so many things to do in summer. Perhaps my favourite was personal retreats to Newcastle Beach. There’s this one secret hard-to-access spot on a cliff overlooking half of Newcastle Beach. It required a bit of mountain climbing and lots of courage to get to that secluded cliff-hanger spot. Once there, I would plug-in my cassette tape player (no iPods during those days) and enjoy the striking scenery, strong breeze and soothing music.
I think as a student, I spent most of my winters out of Newcastle (sorry…).
Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?
Go to Nelson or Anna Bay, bring a bucket, hunt for Pipis, cook them, and eat them. Yum!
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