A Singaporean physician who lived his life in the “fast lane” had learned one critical lesson after his days became numbered: there’s more to life than money.
Dr. Richard Teo Keng Siang, a cosmetic surgeon, managed to spread his message before succumbing to lung cancer in October 2012.
Teo‘s story resurfaced on the internet this week, touching the hearts of many struggling to search for their happiness.
“I’m a typical product of today’s society,” he said in a speech. “From young, I’ve always been under the influence and impression that to be happy is to be successful. And to be successful is to be wealthy. So I led my life according to this motto.”
Teo, who died at the age of 40, switched from a career in ophthalmology to aesthetics, a transition that brought him millions in his first year of practice.
“You know the irony is that people do not make heroes out of average GPs, family physicians. They make heroes out of people who are rich and famous,” Teo said in another speech. “People who are not happy to pay 20 Singaporean dollars ($15) to see a GP, the same person will have no qualms paying 10,000 Singaporean dollars ($7,310) for a liposuction, 15,000 Singaporean dollars ($10,970) for a breast augmentation.”
As he raked in millions, Teo, a sports car enthusiast, found himself spending weekends at car club gatherings, racing with his chosen wheels.
He would also dine at the fanciest restaurants and brush elbows with high-profile people, including the likes of Miss Singapore Universe Rachel Kum and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Teo owned at least four sports cars, including a Honda S2000, Nissan GTR, Subaru WRX and Ferrari 430.
“I was at the pinnacle of my career. I thought I was having everything under control,” he recalled.
Then, the unfortunate news struck his family on March 11, 2011, the same day a tsunami ravaged Japan: Teo was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given three to four months — with six months at most — to live.
“I couldn’t accept it. I have a hundred relatives on both sides, my mom and my dad… And not a single one has cancer,” he said of his illness, which had spread to his brain and spine.
Falling under severe depression, the doctor cried himself to sleep at night.
“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 having all these thoughts of my possessions, they brought me no joy.”
As the days went on, he realized that it was not his Ferrari or Michelin-starred dish that brought him joy.
“What really brought me joy in the last 10 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.”
In his suffering, Teo also learned to empathize with fellow cancer patients — something that he had never experienced as a doctor focused on profit.
“I did not know how they feel, not until I became a patient. And, if you ask me, would I have been a very different doctor if I were to relive 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,” he told young doctors.
“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.
“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.”
Teo carried the lessons he had learned in the last few months of his life to his deathbed.
“When I faced death, when I had to, I stripped myself of everything 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.”
Nearly seven years later, his message resonates not only with young doctors, but anyone trying to find their own success.
“I’m proud of him for leaving a legacy,” said his wife, identified only as Ms. Teo, according to The New Paper via Asia One. “I wished I could be like him. He is the best teacher God has sent to me.”