Dr. Lam at his home in Sault Ste. Marie. A neonatalogist and pediatrician, Dr. Lam retired after being diagnosed with colon cancer.
Dr. Kwok-Lock Lam was presented with the prestigious Dr. William Hutchinson Award by the Board of the Sault Area Hospital at its June 2011 meeting. The award recognizes exemplary contributions to health care in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma.
When he was informed that he would be this year’s recipient of the award, Lam wondered why he was being recognized, feeling that he had perhaps not contributed as much to the community as prior recipients. He also felt that the plaque should honour his whole team. However, to the nurses and colleagues who nominated him for the award, his merit was unquestionable: the humble pediatrician’s pioneering ways left a lasting legacy in the Sault and beyond.
Dr. Lam came to Sault Ste. Marie in 1977, drawn by the opportunity to affect change. Back in the 1970s, all of the neonatal units were housed in university centres, and he was offered the chance to start a level three unit in Algoma. Lam arranged for the purchase of the appropriate equipment, trained the nursing team, and not long after, the Sault became the first non-university neonatal intensive care unit in Canada. His expertise enabled families and newborn babies to receive care in Sault Ste. Marie instead of having to travel to larger urban centres.
A true trailblazer, he also brought together the first air ambulance team in Ontario. “It was a very local, team effort,” said Lam. “We contacted Airdale and asked them to customize an airplane for us.” It wasn’t uncommon for Lam to go in the air ambulance to retrieve critically ill and premature babies.
Lam completed his degree in medicine in Ireland. “Neonatology was where I spent most of my time… it’s always exciting to work with newborns,” he said. From Ireland he came to Canada, starting at McMaster in Hamilton. He remembers treating a woman from the Sault who told him that he should work there. “I didn’t even know where the Sault was,” he said.
Typically, neonatologists don’t follow a child by becoming their physician after the initial consultation, but Lam started a mixed practice model covering both neonatology and general pediatrics. “The relationship with the patient is the most important thing. Seeing the children’s progress is very rewarding,” commented Lam. Many of his patients, now in their 20s, still stay in touch.
Lam dedicated over 30 years of his working life caring for the youth of the region.
He served as director of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), participated in a number of committees and worked tirelessly as an advocate for babies and children. He retired only after being diagnosed with colon cancer. Ever committed to his patients, he found it hard to walk away, and kept his office open a year after his diagnosis to make sure his patients would be looked after. “I miss the kids!” said Lam, who is almost 70. Yet, his “kids” are never far. While receiving his cancer treatment, he noted that two of the pharmacists in the cancer clinic were his patients as infants.
In his retirement, after getting better, the native of Singapore hopes to travel back to see his relatives there. He also looks forward to spending more time with his family, and on his various hobbies which include cycling, cooking, photography and riding his 250 Honda motorcycle. “I wish I had spent more time with my own children, Minos and Dika, over my career, because when they are 18, they are gone,” he reflected. “Medicine is so much a part of me, it is hard to let go…but at least I am getting a second chance with my grandson.” Asked if he has any words of wisdom from his 30 years in medicine, Dr. Lam recalls what a colleague at McMaster once told him: “You need the three A’s to be an excellent doctor: availability, affability and ability.”
On availability, Lam was not known to refuse patients, and even gave out his home number to those who were very sick. As for affability, he says doctors can always improve their bedside manner, but that being straight with patients and having open communication is key. “The diagnosis is in the story… you have to listen to what people are telling you. The mother is often the best diagnostician.” Regarding ability, there is no question that Lam has greatly impacted the quality of care in Algoma, yet a parent testimonial on the Internet rating his skills speaks volumes: “One cannot describe the feeling of relief to know that your child will have the absolute best of the best during the worst times for them.”
Dr. Lam finds it hard to believe it’s been 30 years. “It’s been a great career – I enjoyed it all,” he said.