LOOKING much younger than his 61 years, consultant interventional radiologist in Subang Jaya Medical Centre (SJMC) Dr Alex Tang has the air of a battle-hardened veteran, not in a war as we typically associate the term with, but in countless combat against death and disease.
Born in Grisek, Johor, his is a story of hardship and endeavour, a tale not unlike the ones you see in dramas that weave narratives of success despite the most adverse of circumstances.
Born into poverty, Dr Tang underwent many hardships in his formative years. His circumstances drove him to excel in his studies, and his efforts were rewarded with exemplar STPM results, one which opened up a new world of possibility and opportunity.
“When I was young, I always wanted to be an electrical engineer. However, when I received my STPM results, other options opened up for me.
“I sought advice from my primary school teacher, who noted that there were about 20 boys who became electrical engineers in my village. When I asked him how many were doctors, he replied, ‘none’,” Dr Tang says.
Career in medicine
That spurred his decision to apply for medicine. With the help of an annual scholarship provided by the Association for the Promotion of Higher Education in Malaysia, for which he remains extremely grateful, he graduated in 1988.
“When I graduated, I had an inkling that subspecialisation was the future of medicine, so I was determined to pursue that despite familial pressure to open a clinic after my compulsory service.
“At the time, I thought that plastic surgery could be a possibility, so I proceeded to apply for surgical positions after my internship.”
Unfortunately, he encountered numerous obstacles in trying to obtain positions that would help him pursue his aim to specialise in plastic surgery.
As fate would have it, a different opportunity came knocking at the most unexpected of sources.
“I was working in a busy outpatient one day when a nurse came to me with a bunch of forms in her hand. She handed me one and asked, ‘Dr Tang, would you be interested in applying for a Masters in Radiology programme?’
“Something clicked in me. After all, this specialty had a tenuous connection to my childhood aspiration of electrical engineering,” says Dr Tang.
Suffice to say, this would be the catalyst to a long and distinguished career in a medical subspecialty that was in its infancy in Malaysia and many other countries around the world at the time.
“I got accepted into a programme which only had 10 vacancies, and these would have prioritised radiology registrars.” (Registrars are doctors who are in advanced training to become a specialist in their field of choice, which in this case is radiology.)
As Dr Tang would recall, what triggered his acceptance into the programme was his mention of interventional radiology during his interview. Interventional radiology is at its essence a specialty in medicine that utilises minimally
invasive surgical techniques under imaging guidance to diagnose and treat many different kinds of conditions.
“The main interviewer, Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Samad Sakijan, to whom I am always grateful for opening the door to my career, had a spark in his eyes when I mentioned interventional radiology.
“At the conclusion of the interview, as I was leaving the room, he said to me, ‘Dr Tang, you will know what interventional radiology is.’ ”
The road to interventional radiology
With the masters of radiology completed, Dr Tang went to the United Kingdom in 1997.
There, he obtained his Fellowship of the Royal College of Radiologists (FRCR) and two fellowships in Vascular and Interventional Radiology from Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College of Medicine and Guy’s Hospital, London – for formal training in interventional radiology as that wasn’t available in Malaysia at the time.
His training in interventional radiology took him to various hospitals in the UK. He returned to Malaysia in 1998 and started putting his training into good use.
At the time, it was a challenging landscape because there were so few, if any, fully trainedinterventional radiologists in the country. He would struggle with many difficulties during this time in government service.
When he joined the private sector in 1999, things weren’t all rosy either as the speciality wasn’t well known. But things quickly came together, and next year will mark his 25 th year in SJMC that he joined all those years ago.
Having been involved in various aspects of training young interventional radiologists over the years, Dr Tang shares this hope:
“I strongly feel that interventional radiology training needs to be clinically based, not procedural. By procedural, I mean that the doctor only does the procedure as requested, without looking at the whole treatment, without being involved in the care of the patient, without any evaluation of the patient.
“The training needs to be clinically based, whereby you function like any other clinical consultant,” he stresses.
Dr Tang shares his hopes for the specialty to grow, and become part of a multidisciplinary team to offer patients the greatest benefit.
“Such a collaborative effort between specialties can offer the greatest benefit to patients.”
We often say that we choose a career to embark on. In Dr Tang’s case, its apt to say that the career has chosen him, and what a career it has been in every sense of the word.