The Memorial of Dr. Richard Teo
What's important in life? Don't wait till its too late.
Below is the transcript of the talk of Dr. Richard Teo, who is a 40-year-old millionaire and cosmetic surgeon with a stage-4 lung cancer but selflessly came to share with the D1 class his life experience on 19-Jan-2012.
Hi good morning to all of you. My voice is a bit hoarse, so please bear with me. I thought I'll just introduce myself.
My name is Richard, I'm a medical doctor. And I thought I'll...just share some thoughts of my life. It's my pleasure to be invited by prof. Hopefully, it can get you thinking about how... as you pursue this.. embarking on your training to become dental surgeons, to think about other things as well.
Since young, I am a typical product of today's society. Relatively successful product that society requires.. From young, I came from a below average family. 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 be extremely competitive, since I was young.
Not only do I need to go to the top school, I need to have success in all fields. Uniform groups, track, everything. I needed to get trophies, needed to be successful, I needed to have colours award, national colours award, everything. So I was highly competitive since young. I went on to medical school, graduated as a doctor. Some of you may know that within the medical faculty, ophthalmology is one of the most highly sought after specialities. So I went after that as well. I was given a traineeship in ophthalmology, I was also given a research scholarship by NUS toacademic achievements did not bring me any wealth. So once I completed my bond with MOH, I decided that this is taking too long, the training in eye surgery is just taking too long. And there's lots of money to be made in the private sector. If you're aware, in the last few years, there is this rise in aesthetic medicine. Tons of money to be made there. So I decided, well, enough of staying in institution, it's time to leave. 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 average GP (general practitioner), family physicians. They don't. 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 have no qualms paying ten thousand dollars for a liposuction, 15 thousand dollars for a breast augmentation, and so on and so forth. So it's a no brainer isn't? Why do you want to be a gp? Become an aesthetic physician. So instead of healing the sick and ill, I decided that I'll become a glorified beautician. So, business was good, very good. It started off with waiting of one week, then became 3weeks, then one month, then 2 months, then 3 months. I was overwhelmed; there were just too many patients. Vanities are fantastic business. I employed one doctor, the second doctor, the 3rd doctor, the 4th doctor. And within the 1st year, we're already raking in millions. Just the 1st year. But never is enough because I was so obsessed with it. 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. At that time, the 458 wasn't out, it's just a spider convertible, 430. This is a friend of mine, a schoolmate who is a forex trader, a banker. So he got a red one, he was wanting all along a red one, I was getting the silver one.
So what do I do after getting a car? It's time to buy a house, to build our own bungalows. So we go around looking for a land to build our own bungalows, we went around hunting. So how do i live my life? Well, we all think we have to mix around with the rich and famous. This is one of the Miss Universe. So we hang around with the beautiful, rich and famous. This by the way is an internet founder. So this is how we spend our lives, with dining and all the restaurants and Michelin Chefs you know.
So I reach a point in life that I got everything for my life. I was at the pinnacle of my career and all. That's me one year ago in the gym and I thought I was like, having everything under control and reaching the pinnacle.
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. And that evening, he called me up and said that we found bone marrow replacement in your spine. I said, sorry what does that mean? I mean I know what it means, but I couldn't accept that. I was like “Are you serious?” I was still running around going to the gym you know. But we had more scans the next day, PET scans - positrons emission scans, 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. And you know one moment I was there, totally thinking that I have everything under control, thinking that I've reached the pinnacle of my life. But the next moment, I have just lost it.
This is a CT scan of the lungs itself. If you look at it, every single dot there is a tumour. We call this miliaries tumour. And in fact, I have tens of thousands of them in the lungs. So, I was told that even with chemotherapy, that I'll have about 3-4months at most. Did my life come crushing on, of course it did, who wouldn't? I went into depression, of course, severe depression and I thought I had everything.
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 i was feeling really down, having severe depression. Having all these thoughts of my possessions, they brought me no joy. The thought of... You know, I can hug my Ferrari to sleep, no... No, it is not going to happen. It brought not a single comfort during my last ten months. And I thought they were, but they were not true happiness. But it wasn't. What really brought me joy in the last ten 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. That brought joy to me, happiness. None of the things I have, all the possessions, and I thought those were supposed to bring me happiness. But it didn't, because if it did, I would have felt happy think about it, when I was feeling most down..
You know the classical Chinese New Year that is coming up. In the past, what do I do? Well, I will usually drive my flashy car to do my rounds, visit my relatives, to show it off to my friends. And I thought that was joy, you know. I thought that was really joy. But do you really think that my relatives and friends, whom some of them have difficulty trying to make ends meet, that will truly share the joy with me? Seeing me driving my flashy car and showing off to them? No, no way. They won’t be sharing joy with me. They were having problems trying to make ends meet, taking public transport. In fact i think, what I have done is more like you know, making them envious, jealous of all I have. In fact, sometimes even hatred.
Those are what we call objects of envy. I have them, I show them off to them and I feel it can fill my own pride and ego. That didn't bring any joy to these people, to my friends and relatives, and I thought they were real joy.
Well, let me just share another story with you. You know when I was about your age, I stayed in king Edward VII hall. I had this friend whom I thought was strange. Her name is Jennifer, we're still good friends. And as I walk along the path, she would, if she sees a snail, she would actually pick up the snail and put it along the grass patch. I was like why do you need to do that? Why dirty your hands? It’s just a snail. The truth is she could feel for the snail. The thought of being crushed to death is real to her, but to me it's just a snail. If you can't get out of the pathway of humans then you deserve to be crushed, it’s part of evolution isn't it? What an irony isn't it?
There I was being trained as a doctor, to be compassionate, to be able to empathise; but I couldn't. As a house officer, I graduated from medical school, posted to the oncology department at NUH. And, 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. When I went to clinic every day, to the wards every day, take blood, give the medication but was the patient real to me? They weren't real to me. 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.
Was the pain, was the suffering the patients went through real? No. Of course I know all the medical terms to describe how they feel, all the suffering they went through. But in truth, I did not know how they feel, not until I became a patient. It is until now; I truly understand how they feel. 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.
Even as you start just your first year, and you embark this journey to become dental surgeons, let me just challenge you on two fronts.
Inevitably, all of you here will start to go into private practice. You will start to accumulate wealth. I can guarantee you. Just doing an implant can bring you thousands of dollars, it's fantastic money. 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.
Why do I say that? Because when I start to accumulate, the more I have, the more I want. The more I wanted, the more obsessed I became. Like what I showed you earlier on, all I can was basically to get more possessions, to reach the pinnacle of what society did to us, of what society wants us to be. 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.
A lot of times we forget, whom we are supposed to be serving. We become so lost that we serve nobody else but just ourselves. That was what happened to me. Whether it is in the medical, the dental fraternity, I can tell you, right now in the private practice, sometimes we just advise patients on treatment that is not indicated. Grey areas. And even though it is not necessary, we kind of advocate it. Even at this point, I know who are my friends and who genuinely cared for me and who are the ones who try to make money out of me by selling me "hope". We kind of lose our moral compass along the way. Because we just want to make money.
Worse, I can tell you, over the last few years, we bad mouth our fellow colleagues, our fellow competitors in the industry. We have no qualms about it. So if we can put them down to give ourselves an advantage, we do it. And that's what happening right now, medical, dental everywhere. My challenge to you is not to lose that moral compass. I learnt it the hard way, I hope you don't ever have to do it.
Secondly, a lot of us will start to get numb to our patients as we start to practise. Whether is it government hospitals, private practice, I can tell you when I was in the hospital, with stacks of patient folders, I can't wait to get rid of those folders as soon as possible; I can't wait to get patients out of my consultation room as soon as possible because there is just so many, and that's a reality. Because it becomes a job, a very routine job. And this is just part of it. Do I truly know how the patient feels back then? No, I don't. The fears and anxiety and all, do I truly understand what they are going through? I don't, not until when this happens to me and I think that is one of the biggest flaws in our system.
We’re being trained to be healthcare providers, professional, and all and yet we don't know how exactly they feel. 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 and all? Most of us won’t, alright, I can assure you. So don't lose it, my challenge to you is to always be able to put yourself in your patient's shoes.
Because the pain, the anxiety, the fear are very real even though it's not real to you, it's real to them. So don't lose it and you know, right now I'm in the midst of my 5th cycle of my chemotherapy. I can tell you it’s a terrible feeling. Chemotherapy is one of those things that you don't wish even your enemies to go through because it's just suffering, lousy feeling, throwing out, you don't even know if you can retain your meals or not. Terrible feeling! And even with whatever little energy now I have, I try to reach out to other cancer patients because I truly understand what pain and suffering is like. But it's kind of little too late and too little.
You guys have a bright future ahead of you with all the resource and energy, so I’m going to challenge you to go beyond your immediate patients. To understand that there are people out there who are truly in pain, truly in hardship. Don’t get the idea that only poor people suffer. It is not true. A lot of these poor people do not have much in the first place, they are easily contented. for all you know they are happier than you and me but there are out there, people who are suffering mentally, physically, hardship, emotionally, financially and so on and so forth, and they are real. We choose to ignore them or we just don't want to know that they exist.
So do think about it alright, even as you go on to become professionals and dental surgeons and all. That you can reach out to these people who are in need. Whatever you do can make a large difference to them. I'm now at the receiving end so I know how it feels, someone who genuinely care for you, encourage and all. It makes a lot of difference to me. That’s what happens after treatment. I had a treatment recently, but I’ll leave this for another day. A lot of things happened along the way, that's why I am still able to talk to you today.
I'll just end of with this quote here, it's from this book called Tuesdays with Morris, and some of you may have read it. Everyone knows that they are going to die; every one of us knows that. The truth is, none of us believe it because if we did, we will do things differently. When I faced death, when I had to, I stripped myself off 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. I know it sounds very morbid for this morning but it's the truth, this is what I’m going through.
Don’t let society tell you how to live. Don’t let the media tell you what you're supposed to do. Those things happened to me. And I led this life thinking that these are going to bring me happiness. I hope that you will think about it and decide for yourself how you want to live your own life. Not according to what other people tell you to do, and you have to decide whether you want to serve yourself, whether you are going to make a difference in somebody else's life. Because true happiness doesn't come from serving yourself. I thought it was but it didn't turn out that way. With that I thank you, if you have any questions you have for me, please feel free. Thank you.
For the fuller, more detailed transcript, you can check here.
This guy here just explained all my fears about success. Particularly the decomposition
of our moral compasses as we continue to strive towards the pinnacle of human success.
But there are other factors contributing to this fear of mine. They're all interlinked with
one another to form this massive invisible wall blocking me from progressing through.
The topic of success was always a topic of constant debate with my ex.
But I've gotta thank her though. The breakup woke me up real hard. Like
another Mjolnir from Thor through my thick cranium.
Anyways, this isn't about that breakup. There'll be bits about it here and there, but
more importantly, it's about how things have changed for me as a 21 year-old fully
The element of success has always been around me. It began mostly with peer to peer
influence back in the good'ol days of school. Back then, it was fun aiming to be on top
in the academics. Mainly because I couldn't do much physically with my fat-ridden physique,
which also contributed to the awful apt I have with sports activities.
Then at one time, I began to realize something about people who worked hard.
Like for instance, my sister. I remembered that we didn't use to have heated quarrels
on a daily basis until we both reached a certain age, which meant that she was a
totally different person before she realized that she needed to be stellar to land
a chance with medicine.
But due to some horrible set of circumstances, which I blame my dad partially for,
she had to take an alternative, less costy path. She chose psychology, which
happened to be the best decision in her life despite the detour from medicine.
At the time of quarrels, I find her to be always too demanding, selfish and ignorant
to the thoughts and feelings of the others living under the same roof. There was a
point where I abhored her attitude so much that I swore I'd never want to be like
However, looking back, this only started when she began her study rage, when she
always trapped herself in her room studying in order to prep-up for all in incoming
exams, score her A's and strive to be the best amongst equals. No doubt I was her
human punching-bag then. As if getting bullied for being fat at school wasn't bad enough
haha. But amidst all the pain she had intentionally or unintentionally caused me, she's still
my sister. And I still love her.
As I grew up, my perception changed as I continue to find even more similar
people out there, of whom I dub as selfish, overdemanding baggerts. I steered
clear away from them as much as I could back then. But for some reason, something
kept pulling me back to these people. And somehow I ended up being friends with
some of them and we shared great things together.
My relationship with my sister has gotten better and I've learned to forgive and forget.
The only arguments we have now are very civilized and educated debates on our views
about world issues, politics, jobs, life sharing experiences and etc. Nothing of the likes of
when we were constantly bickering about whether we should turn up the volume of the tv
A series of events ensued, and somehow, I got myself a girlfriend. When she showed up,
her presence in my life led to a more solidified idea of what being successful meant. Mainly
because she was one of them selfish, overdemanding baggerts, albeit a more demure one.
Or maybe she just didn't want that side of her to show because we were dating and she
wanted to be at her best. She was kind enough to show me the ropes, lend me some of her
books and gave me some pep talk about being successful. But I gotta admit I didn't really
receive it quite well on the other end.
Because I wasn't one of them. I trained myself not to be since a very young age. And I
didn't have a real reason to be a success convert. I was content. I was happy enough.
What else would I need?
Either way, I learned from her that success comes from a very, very long road of
misunderstandings, mishaps, shits and lots of patience in overcoming this paramount
of crap. And this cycle won't stop even after acquiring success. Because success has
no end until you put a stop to it, or until life stops it for you, like the case of Dr. Richard
Teo, and Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. But this non-stop cycle is what makes
success so rewarding, and makes you so much stronger as a person. Because you
just learn to deal with all the shits that are being flung at you and you just can't help
but grow more as a person.
Success is, having lotsa of people thinking wrongly of you, misunderstanding you for
you working hard to be who you can be and misjudging you without even hearing you
out first. Like my sister. She wasn't really selfish or overdemanding. She just needed
some peace and quiet to study. I mean, put yourself in a library where you're just trying
to get some reading done for your exam tomorrow, and a group just have to create a
ruckus in the library. Don't you just feel like pounding them all with the fire extinguisher?
Anyways, a few years back, I remember asking my mom what she'd do if one day,
I just started acting like my sister. She didn't give me a proper answer and stood there
looking back at me for a long time in silence. And then she finally gave a shrug and
muttered out "what can I do?" and walked away. I didn't bother interpreting it. And
I did ask the question out of the blue, not knowing what to expect.
However, I've always felt the longing to be that selfish, demanding baggert. But I didn't.
Mostly because I don't want to be disrespectful to others, particularly my family members.
Nobody said you can pursue success without being an asshole. But learning how to be an
ass enough really helps you in the long run.
My family values earnestness, honesty, respect, kindness and most important of all,
always letting life feed us with jokes. We always took things slow, and the priority is
to remain grateful and happy, not pursuing a certain sort of greed or passion. And for
some odd reasons, my parents always relate passion to lust. I don't get it. Is passion
really just about banging girls? I thought that word has more depth than that.
Anyhow, my eldest brother outgrew this box of values. And my sister definitely
did the same. Even my younger brother's beginning to step out of it. Perhaps it's
time that I follow suit.
time that I follow suit.
Success is also, having lotsa unwanted mishaps. Usually people mishaps that stem
from initial misunderstandings are the worst since they're usually the ones that really
rip you apart and force water out of your tear ducts because they have a natural
tendency to degrade one's self worth to something worse than animal excrement.
When people just can't get you, they just can't relate. And the longer they are left
oblivious to your true intentions, hazardous sparks fly in their heads and fleeting
concerns just slowly evolve into chaotic malice. The next thing you know, the whole
world's just suddenly closing in on you, threatening to eat you up raw and digest you
in it's belly.
Don't you just hate the feeling of having lazy-ass sloth of friends that always discourage
you to do the things that matter and when you need their support in something that
does matter, they just leave you alone to have fun? And when they just get bored of
you, they just begin to hate on you for no reason.
It's probably too late to realize this now, but I think I've somehow reflected this
persona to my ex. Seems like 3 years of continuous disappointment finally took its
toll on the relationship.
Success is... dealing with that paramount of crap life throws at you. All the curveballs
you need to handle effectively, all those fucked up brick walls that block your way
everytime you try to run further ahead. They could be as simple as trying to understand
a basic math equation because you want to know how it works, or how to score a good
goal in soccer. And when you study them over and over again for 10 cycles, and you still
don't get it, there you have it, a brick wall just slabbed right through yo face.
Call me weird, but I couldn't do simple math equations properly without the help of my
coincidental maths mentor, who sat right next to me for a year. The same person who
changed the way I saw math, and also the one to alter my perception of First World Problems.
I always say without him, i'd be dead, and he doesn't believe me till date and will never do.
Anyhow, we aren't that close anymore because I was a douche for a time, and if there
was any epic achievement I've ever had before, it's the Pissing Off People Who Care
About Me Award.
Of course, there're also those brick walls that are made of flesh and resemble people.
They put you down, harass your soul and make your life as difficult as it could get.
But when you finally climb over them... oh boy, that sure is a great day.
Success.... Success is being really patient with life fucking things up for you. Because
when things fuck up, and you give in, you'll usually feel a momentary state of pure bliss
caused by the feigning of ignorance. But put the gear in long-term, and you'd be facing
the biggest possible regretful turning point in your entire life.
I know because I gave in almost all my life. To my parents. To my friends. To my teachers.
To random strangers. And more importantly, I gave in to myself. The wrong me.
I've had this ridiculous epiphany from a young age that everytime I continued to work
hard, things just kept getting harder and harder and I won't necessarily be rewarded
for my efforts. Why spend so much energy pushing on when you can just kick in, chill
It's like when I get stabbed with a pencil lead into my arm, I just have to show no
reaction. Because if I do, the bullies get what they want, and they continue to harass
me with the same antics.
When I try to fight back, suddenly everyone begins to come in and act like a judge.
Hurting people was always wrong. But I guess to them, hurting me wasn't that big of
a deal, since I was fat, slow and a defenseless recluse who happens to be one of the
minorities in my school. Funny part was that the I was targeted by my own kind, not
the peaceful majorities in my school back then.
Man, I really should have hurled that chair back then.
Then at home, speaking out my opinions were always taboo. And I was always
considered childish no matter how fucking hard I try to reason. So I gave up caring.
Now that I'm older, things are a little different.
So, in a way, I grew up with this sense of numbness I guess. To be always actively finding
false happiness to occupy my saddened state of mentality by diving into games, books, and
whatever I could find that wasn't hard to do, and not pursue all the harder roads that were
present before me. Because I lacked the motivation and I never wanted to go through the
trouble in the first place.
I wasn't taught about greatness. I was however, taught about how miserably doomed I am
from a young age, that I could never be good in anything I do. And hard work will never
Now, looking back, I'd really love to just give ol' Osla a good elbow right in his face.
Because elbows are more painful. Punches are overrated. And he'd have turned out a
lot better now if he did things right. Assuming the current me already know what right is.
Probably the current me needs a good elbow too. But I guess you could equate a spiritual
breakdown from a breakup to a good hard elbow to the face. Sometimes, I'd like to think
that I deserve worse than a peaceful one for all the disappointment I've caused her. Good
thing I wasn't in that mindset that day. If not, things would have gotten awry.
So here I am today, a changed person. Mainly because after I know what I've impeccably
lost, and it's impossible for me to get it back; ever, that I began to feel that every single
thing I've spent time doing so far was worthless, meaningless and just made me more
pathetic than I could have ever dreamed to be.
For the past month, I've noticed that there was this undying will inside me that was
brimming with energy, and was waiting to be set loose. And I welcomed it to fill up
the broken spiritual altar I have within me. Since then, I've noticed an increase with
volatility in my character, getting more and more easily annoyed with all the small
things that happen around me, but also heightened consciousness with all the things
I wanted to get rid off. Especially bad habits.
I'm surprised to see myself actually getting things done. One by one, one at a time
by crossing out my list of to-do's. This never happened to me before. Even during
college. I really never knew I had it in me lying dormant for so long to be this excitedly
motivated to get things done.
This is one of my first times, genuinely feeling happier and more confident with myself,
while building up my pride upwards. I can feel the fear to pursue success is fading away.
Maybe I've found something within me that's overpowering this fear. A feeling greater
than my acrophobia itself.
It could be love. It could be lingering attachments that I refuse to let go. Things were
perfect when it was still around. Now that it's gone, I'm no longer content, and I'm in
a mode where I'd do almost anything to have it back.
People always say you won't know the true value of something until it is lost to you.
I've lost it, and these words and I will be having some uber bromance for a long
period of time.
But I know in my mind for a fact that I've already lost it. I'm just letting my heart fool
myself into thinking that there's still hope. Like how there will be 2013.
Hope is frail, but it's really just very hard to kill. It's scary sometimes how people can
live under a fabricated reality. But hey, if you can make those fabrications a reality... I
don't see why one should stop dreaming the impossible.
A time for new beginnings. It's never too late to start now. Wish me luck. n_n