Doctor Hannah goes on the record

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 June, 2006, 12:00am

Caring for the dying doesn't prepare you for your own death, says diary medico

Nothing prepares you for your own death, says Yvonne Mak Yi-wood, even if you have spent years caring for the dying.

A specialist in palliative care, Dr Mak, 40, has been working at Sha Tin's Bradbury Hospice for terminal patients since the mid-1990s, but when she was told she had breast cancer in 2003, she was just as shocked, confused and angry as any patient.

For the past six months, with a photograph of her head turned away, she has been writing a weekly column, 'A Mother's Diary', under the pseudonym of Dr Hannah about her experience in treatment and recovery. Today's installment, on the opposite page, is the last.

Because of Medical Council restrictions on publicity and advertising, Dr Mak did not want to use her real name in her column. She now has permission from the Hospital Authority to speak on record.

'Developing a cancer is not something one would be grateful about, but my experience has been a personal journey and a professional one,' she said. 'I started as a doctor and researcher, and became a patient. Now when I talk to a patient, I feel I understand his suffering; that I am on his side.

'Being a doctor means you are trained in technical medicine - it doesn't necessarily equip you to deal with issues of death, suffering and establishing connections with your patients.'

Born in Hong Kong and educated in Britain, Dr Mak practised as a family doctor there for more than a decade before returning to her native city in the mid-1990s.

'I wanted my two children to have some familiarity with Chinese culture. Then, when I came back, I was offered this Hospital Authority job,' she said. 'I worked very hard for years, on overdrive. Then Sars came, and we - all the medical professionals in public service - were overwhelmed. Luckily, none of our patients and staff contracted Sars.'

It was during a staff party in late 2003 that Dr Mak accidentally slipped and fractured the bottom of her spine. While lying in a hospital bed, she noticed a lump in one of her breasts, and it was quickly confirmed as a cancerous growth.

'There was supposed to be these stages of denial, anger, depression and acceptance,' she said. 'In reality, they are all jumbled up and it's like a roller-coaster ride all the time.'

While undergoing chemotherapy, she started writing a diary for her two young children. 'Writing was also a kind of therapy - it helps me dealing with my depressed feelings,' she said.

'Children know something is wrong, so it's better you try to explain it to them. The trick is not to do it in one go, but gradually and let them understand in small doses.

'Oftentimes relatives and friends haven't a clue how to help, but they desperately want to.

'That's one reason I wanted to publish my diary - to share my experiences with such people.'

Now, having recovered, Dr Mak said she was reducing her work hours by half to allow more time with her family.

Her cancer diary is scheduled to be published later this year.