KUALA LUMPUR, March 25 — Born into an influential family of doctors and politicians in 1950, Tan Sri Dr Yahya Awang is arguably the country’s most prominent cardiothoracic surgeon.
He is known for performing two coronary artery bypasses on Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1989 and 2007, and played an instrumental role in establishing the National Heart Institute (IJN) in 1992.
It was there that he achieved a major landmark in Malaysia’s healthcare when he successfully performed the country’s first heart transplant operation in 1998.
He also recently set up a private heart hospital dubbed Cardiac Vascular Sentral Kuala Lumpur (CVSKL) to help reduce the long waiting list for cardiac surgery and put Malaysia on the map of medical tourism.
He is currently the chairman of CVSKL.
That is just a fraction of Dr Yahya’s achievements and contributions to the country’s healthcare fraternity.
His desire to pursue a medical career roots back to his family influence as he was growing up.
He is the son of former Penang state governor Tun Datuk Dr Awang Hassan and nephew of Malaysia’s second deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.
“I come from a family of doctors, so naturally, we always talked about sick people and medicine over the dinner table,” he said.
“While I was pursuing my studies abroad, I was told that Malaysia needed more cardiac surgeons and there were long waiting lists for the surgery here.
“Therefore, I got into the specialty to become a cardiac surgeon and eventually serve my country.”
Age is not a barrier
At 68, Dr Yahya is still hard at work and not ready to hang up his scalpel anytime soon.
“As long as I’m fit enough to operate, I will operate. Perhaps another five to six years, hopefully,” he said with a wide smile.
Tall, firm and often with a warm welcoming smile, Dr Yahya said he kicks off every day with a morning swim to keep himself upbeat ahead of his significantly eventful day.
After half-a-kilometre of swimming, he normally has a light breakfast before heading to the hospital.
Once at CVSKL, he gets behind his desk for some paperwork, as part of his “chairman duty”, before heading to the ward and intensive care unit to visit his patients.
“I usually have about five to six in-patients to visit every day,” he said.
He then proceeds to the operation theatre to perform surgeries until 4pm.
Before entering the surgery room, Dr Yahya said he usually puts his patients at ease by assuring them that the operation’s risk will be around one per cent or less.
“Over the past few years, open-heart surgery has become a routine for me and it doesn’t make me anxious anymore,” he said.
“In the old days, of course there were some tension before every operation, but I was always confident that if I follow the standard operating procedures and protect the heart during the surgery, I’ll eventually do well.”
To date, he has successfully performed over 5,000 open-heart surgeries since 1983.
Operating on Dr Mahathir
When asked to recall one of his most memorable operations, he promptly pointed out the one involving the prime minister in 1989.
At that time, Dr Yahya was a young doctor with merely five years of experience at the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL).
Although the late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had arranged for Sydney-based cardiac surgeon Dr Victor Chang to perform the surgery in Singapore, Dr Mahathir decided to do it here with a Malaysian team at the helm.
“I must take my hat off to Dr Mahathir for his decision that eventually gave the country’s medical fraternity a boost.
“He made the decision based on the fact that Malaysians can do just as well as people from other countries if they set their mind to it.”
Dr Yahya still remembers the operation day like it was yesterday.
“It was very tense,” he said.
“I woke up early in the morning and saw my wife praying for me and Dr Mahathir.”
He said when he arrived at HKL, he saw a large crowd all around the place.
“I entered from the backdoor and started preparing for the operation,” he said.
“I was confident that we could do it following medical protocols and standard operating procedures.”
After a seven-hour long surgery, the team successfully operated the man, who is now the oldest prime minister in the world.
Dr Yahya was also one of the pioneer surgeons who helped set up IJN in 1992.
The idea behind the establishment was to recruit the best heart specialists and deliver a full range of cardiac services to Malaysians.
Helping transform Malaysia’s healthcare system
Dr Yahya has certainly come a long way from his early days as a medical student to transforming the healthcare system in the country, but the journey was paved with lots of sacrifice and determination.
For the young doctors who plan to follow Dr Yahya’s footsteps, the cardiac veteran said there’s a lot of sacrifices and hard work that goes into it.
“I didn’t realise when my children grew up, but I had a great wife (who is also a doctor) to back me up throughout the journey,” he said.
Blessed with three sons and a daughter, Dr Yahya is a proud father of four medical doctors and is eagerly anticipating his eighth grandchild.
Last year, Dr Yahya launched CVSKL at Kuala Lumpur’s transport hub (opposite Kuala Lumpur Sentral) to help reduce the country’s cardiac patient load and boost medical tourism.
“The waiting list for heart surgery was still high and I felt that I should bring together the country’s top cardiologist and heart surgeons under one roof to help address the issue.”
He added that to date, the hospital has also attracted many foreign patients from Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The 60-bedded cardiac hospital now boasts 14 specialists including two heart surgeons, two vascular surgeons, seven cardiologists, two anesthesia specialists and one electrophysiologist.
CVSKL is also equipped with the latest and most advanced facilities with an aim to become the region’s best cardiac hospital.