Dr Richard Tong is a surgeon at Elite Clinic, a private clinic in Tsim Sha Tsui that specialises in general, breast, thyroid, gastrointestinal and vascular surgeries. He also writes a biweekly medical column for the Hong Kong Economic Journal and he has had a book of his columns published.
What made you decide to become a surgeon?
I’ve always been a science guy, and even as a kid I carried out a number of experiments. There used to be a street in Central where chemicals were sold, and I would bring some home and mix them together. So when I grew up, I naturally chose science as my field of study.
I did think about becoming an engineer, but my father encouraged me to become a doctor. At school, it occurred to me that being a surgeon is a little like being a sportsman, while being a medical doctor is more akin to being a scholar. Because I was an athlete and school captain, I thought that becoming a surgeon would be more appropriate for me.
How did you end up specialising in vascular surgery?
It’s a difficult specialty and many vascular operations are quite complex. At times, it involves very urgent operations. For example, if a patient comes in with what we call ‘Triple A’ – an abdominal aortic aneurysm – I have to operate immediately or the patient will die.
When I was on call, I had to rush back to the hospital no matter what I was doing. If I was having dinner, I had to drop the chopsticks and run to the hospital to perform surgery. It turns out that my ability to act quickly and be at the hospital within minutes saved a lot of people’s lives, whereas in the past, most people died from this kind of aneurysm.
Vein surgery is not too popular among surgeons because it’s not that glamorous, but a lot of people suffer from varicose veins. They have big ulcers on their ankles and it’s a crippling ailment, so the demand for vascular surgery is high. It’s common in Hong Kong to see people with big veins on their legs. Chinese people are very tough and they don’t complain at all. The people who suffer the most from varicose veins in Hong Kong are the cooks who stand for 10 hours a day making wonton noodles and boiled congee. It’s a common affliction in this occupation.
What are some of the misconceptions about surgeons that you’ve heard?
People think surgeons live a happy life, drinking and celebrating with pretty girls around them. That is usually not the case. Surgeons are actually very hard-working and put in long hours. People also tend to think that surgical technique is the most important thing, but decision-making is more difficult. Every step is a decision: what you should do and where you should cut. Being just a millimetre off can kill the patient, so these are decisions that are not based on technical expertise. Any surgeon can do an operation well after they’ve done it a thousand times, but making a good decision is the most crucial part of being a surgeon.
You left the public sector in 2004 to become a private surgeon. What was that transition like?
In 2004, Hong Kong Baptist Hospital invited me to be a consultant surgeon there, and I accepted. In my first month on the job, I actually lost 15 pounds. It was such a difficult job and I was working all the time. At the time, I had already been working as a surgeon for 14 years.
It’s slightly different from the public sector, where I would just operate and then the patient would be transferred into someone else’s care. But in the private sector we take care of the patient the whole time, from surgery until full recovery. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding to see patients from the very beginning to the end of their recovery. I’ve become friends with many of my patients.
“If I was having dinner, I had to drop the chopsticks and run to the hospital to perform surgery”
You’ve also visited overseas hospitals in the UK and the US as an honorary consultant and as a visiting scholar, respectively. How were those experiences?
It was really enjoyable. As surgeons, we have the opportunity to learn and observe from an institute of our choosing. I think it’s very important because we bring in new techniques, we learn how people do things and we exchange ideas – and that’s very important for the career development of any surgeon or doctor.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a lot of hobbies. I do a lot of water sports, like diving, snorkelling and boating. I’ve had a boating licence for 20 years, and I like to go out on the sea. Hong Kong is a great place for that because within half an hour of leaving Central you’re already in a beautiful place like Sai Kung. We’re actually quite lucky to live here.
Aside from water sports, I like skiing and snowboarding. I took up skiing 27 years ago, and every year I go to places like France, Switzerland, Japan and Canada. I also enjoy motor sports because they’re exciting, and I have my racing licence as well. I like tracks in China, and I’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai and Zhuhai for track days.
One thing I enjoy very much is drifting in a car on frozen lakes. Inner Mongolia is very cold in the winter – it’s minus 30 to 40 degrees and the lake is frozen. For the past three years, I’ve spent a few weeks drifting on a frozen lake there.
We’ve heard that you’re also a good cook. What’s your specialty?
I would say that it’s fusion cuisine. Once upon a time, a friend of mine brought a lot of French Gillardeau oysters over to my home – 300 of them in total. I couldn’t finish all the oysters, so I got out some rice and boiled it in soup, then added some other ingredients and finally added in some oysters. It was a classic Chinese-style Chiu Chow oyster congee, except with French oysters.
I cooked a lot in the past but nowadays I have a Western chef and a Chinese chef who cook for me, depending on the occasion. But I buy the ingredients myself and plan the menu.
Which non-profit organisations do you support?
After coming back from training overseas, I discovered that I’m very interested in trauma surgery. I have a good relationship with the St John Ambulance Brigade so I joined the organisation. I’ve been volunteering with St John for more than 10 years, mostly doing administrative work. I enjoy that very much and have met a lot of friends there. I am also a medical consultant for the Kowloon and New Territories Trading and Commercial Association, and whenever they have any medical affairs they call me.
Text: Emily Petsko