Medical university dean and cancer survivor wants to make difference in healthcare industry

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha wants to remind Malaysian women that they are as capable as anyone else, even those from more developed countries. Photos: Dr Sharifah Sulaiha Syed Aznal

When Professor Dr Sharifah Sulaiha Syed Aznal was diagnosed with colon cancer in February last year, it came as a shock.

“I couldn't believe the news. My life was turned upside down and all my plans for the future had been disrupted,” says the 53-year-old dean of the School of Medicine at the International Medical University (IMU).

The determined woman persevered and started her chemotherapy. She had to go through eight cycles of chemotherapy but by July, halfway through her treatment, she decided to return to work.

“I came back to work while still on chemotherapy. I was going through the fourth cycle of chemotherapy at that time,” she reveals, adding that she just wanted to get back to “normal life” as soon as possible.

She was wearing a temporary stoma (surgically made hole in the abdomen that enables body waste removal from the body through the end of the bowel into a collection bag) at that time, which was reversed about four months ago, after she completed her treatment in September last year.

“When life throws you a challenge, say 'Yes!” she says, determined to beat the cancer.

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha shares that since she had already anticipated and knew what the side effects would be, it was easier for her to handle them.

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha (seated, with glasses) is thankful to be blessed with 'wonderful and supportive family members, friends, employers, colleagues, and students'.Dr Sharifah Sulaiha (seated, with glasses) is thankful to be blessed with 'wonderful and supportive family members, friends, employers, colleagues, and students'.“I had the expert advice of surgeons, oncologists and nurses at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur and friends who had gone through a similar condition. And I wasn't afraid to be vulnerable and allow my loved ones to take care of me," she says, adding that she's “thankful to be blessed with wonderful and supportive family members, friends, employers, colleagues, and students”.

“My husband, children, and other close family members and friends were like my 'cheerleaders', always rooting for me and cheering me on. They were there for me during my chemo cycles, which helped to alleviate the pain,” she reveals.

"I also wanted to be a good role model to my children, so that they would realise even when there are setbacks in life, it's not over."

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha adds that it's important to “listen to your body”.

“Your body knows what it needs and what it's capable of.”

“Continuous movement as light exercise to prevent further muscle ache and weakness will help, as will a balanced, high protein diet for regaining strength,” she advises.

She hopes to encourage others who are going through similar challenges in life to "never give up because there is light at the end of the tunnel".

Making a difference

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha believes that her experience with colon cancer has made her more compassionate.

“When a doctor has gone through it and shares out of their personal experience, it helps them understand their patients better and this can sometimes be more impactful than just applying technical knowledge although that's important too.”

The third of five children reveals that even though she had initially set her sights on being either an engineer, lawyer or accountant, it was her headmaster-teacher father who influenced her to become a doctor with his words: “If you want to make a difference, and help the country and its people, then medicine is where you can make the most impact”.

She took his advice, and although she found studies tough initially, when she got into her clinical years (third year onwards when based at the hospital/clinic), she began to understand what he meant.

"I loved it!" she says, adding that being the grassroots level made her feel closer to the people and enabled her to be a caregiver which she enjoys.

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha - pictured in Glasgow in 1991 - studied and worked in Scotland.Dr Sharifah Sulaiha - pictured in Glasgow in 1991 - studied and worked in Scotland.

Having studied medicine and worked in Scotland, Dr Sharifah Sulaiha recalls one memorable incident after returning to Malaysia in the mid-90s. It was an emergency case during her first posting at the Kuala Terengganu General Hospital.

“There was this new mother who was experiencing post-partum haemorrhage (heavy bleeding after giving birth) in Kemaman, three hours away from the hospital. As the medical officer on duty, I was assigned to take a flying squad to assess and bring back the patient.

“I promptly got the equipment and waited for a helicopter... which never arrived.”

“It turned out that the flying squad was an ambulance that 'flew', making the three-hour journey in one!” she laughs in retrospect.

“Arriving at the location, the ambulance had to park a distance away from the patient's house and it took the whole village to come and help carry the patient on a stretcher to the ambulance.”

Even though it was encouraging to see the whole community turn up to give their support, it made Dr Sharifah Sulaiha realise some of the obstacles people faced in accessing healthcare.

That was the turning point for her.

"That experience ignited in me a passion to change how things were in the healthcare system," she shares.

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha on her graduation day in the summer of 1995.Dr Sharifah Sulaiha on her graduation day in the summer of 1995.

As a young doctor, she was part of the community of practise that oversaw quality assurance at the hospital. To contribute towards providing better services for patients, she researched best practices and tried to find innovative ways to improve processes such as admissions. As a result, the hospital was known at the time as the best hospital in terms of quality assurance and even received awards for it. They were also invited to the First National Convention on Quality Assurance in the country.

She has also advocated for the rights of doctors. As secretary of Section Concerning House Officers, Medical Officers and Specialists (SCHOMOS) under the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) in Terengganu, she advocated for junior doctors to be given on-call allowance, which is an accepted practice in many other countries. Her efforts were successful: the proposal was approved and eventually implemented nationally.

Bigger challenges were calling

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha (fourth from right) with the Terengganu General Hospital team in 1998.Dr Sharifah Sulaiha (fourth from right) with the Terengganu General Hospital team in 1998.

Dr Sharifah Sulaiha then set her sight on bigger challenges. She recalls telling a friend jokingly that she wanted to be "either head of the government service or professor in an international institution" by the time she was 40.

She joined IMU as a lecturer in 2004 at the age of 33. At 40, she received her associate professorship, and in Jan 2023, she became dean of the School of Medicine.

Over the years, she has driven initiatives that help students fulfil their potential, including leading a team to push for work placements to become part of the university's policy across all programmes, facilitating a taskforce to transform the university's Clinical Simulation Skills Centre to be an independent department with the capacity to serve the entire university, and evolving the School of Medicine curriculum to ensure students had the best exposure and learning outcome, while creating platforms with more interaction between students and lecturers.

When asked how she balances work and life, she replies: “It's all about collaboration. Without a collaborative environment, you'll struggle because you can't do it alone.”

“I'm there for them when they need me, and they're there for me when I need them.”

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, Dr Sharifah Sulaiha's work has always kept her close to women's healthcare challenges.

"I want to remind women in Malaysia that they are as capable as anyone else, even those from more developed countries. In our minds, we may think that Asian women are inferior. But that's not true and we're just as capable of world recognition,” she concludes.

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