Street doctor: Dr Tan examining a patient at the Pertiwi Health Services’ mobile clinic. — Photo by Raja Teh, Pertiwi Soup Kitchen
KUALA LUMPUR: The desire to reach out to others was probably planted at a young age in Dr Nason Tan, who used to accompany his parents for volunteer work at old folks homes.
Today, the 44-year-old general practitioner can lay claim to an extraordinary body of volunteer work.
This includes providing free medical care to the urban poor with Pertiwi Health Services’ mobile clinic, working on humanitarian missions with Medicins San Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders), dealing with sexual health issues of the LGBT community and addressing health issues of refugees.
Dr Tan sees nothing out of the ordinary about his commitment to so many causes.
“I look for the gaps that need filling, the needs to be addressed in areas I am passionate about,” he said.
“For instance, I find that because of the stigma involved, many healthcare providers don’t know how to deal with the LGBT community, and this is important in dealing with sexual health issues. So there is a need there,” he said
His volunteer work has often been sparked by particular events, such as when the Rohingya boat crisis occurred in this region in mid-2015.
That inspired Dr Tan and three others (in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Indonesia) to create the Southeast Asia Refugees Support Network, a social media platform for individuals and civil groups to create initiatives to help refugees.
After 10 years of working with the Health Ministry, a career break spent in Nepal set him on his current path.
“I raised funds among family and friends, then went to Jampa Ling, a Tibetan refugee settlement, to serve as an English teacher and doctor at its small clinic. We raised enough to renovate the clinic, hostel and school, and buy books for the library,” he said.
His first three-month mission with MSF was to deal with a malnutrition emergency in Ethiopia; on his second, nine months in Sierra Leone saw him dealing with outbreaks of lassa fever and cholera, among other illnesses.
Dr Tan is now vice-president of the MSF’s Hong Kong Directors’ Board, and the first Malaysian doctor elected to the board.
He has since moved from MSF frontlines to a more managerial role, because he wanted to see and influence the bigger picture.
“You can find something positive in every situation. When the Kuala Lumpur soup kitchens were under threat in 2014, that brought the often invisible urban poor to everyone’s attention, and it resulted in the building of the Medan Tuanku Feeding Centre,” he said.
However, long hours of volunteering do not come without a price.
“Social and family life definitely suffer,” said Dr Tan. “But I make sure that every Sunday is a family day. I cook dinner, and the whole family gathers at my parents’ place.
“I get a lot of people asking if I do this because I am a religious person. No, I am an atheist. Morality and religiousness are not necessarily tied together. I believe in living in the moment, in doing what I can now, because I have only one life and I want it to be a purposeful one.”