The stereotype that Indian and Sikh parents want their children to become doctors and lawyers broke down when it came to Datuk Dr Jagjit Singh Sambhi’s parents. When the young man announced his plans in medicine, his mother scolded him and his father’s doctor friends pooh-poohed the idea.
It wasn’t the field they were objecting to, though, it was the specialisation he had chosen: Obstetrics and gynaecology (ObGyn).
His mother said: “Don’t take up obstetrics. I had eight children and I didn’t have any doctor’s assistance, the midwives delivered all the babies. You will starve to death!”
In the 1960s, Malaysia already had many Sikh doctors – surgeons, eye doctors, ear, nose and throat doctors, but no Sikh gentleman had ever taken up obstetrics. And, his father’s doctor friends said, “No other nationalities, or even a fellow Sikh, would want a man in a turban delivering their babies!”
But Dr Sambhi stood his ground.
“I proved them wrong. Thereafter, scores (of Sikh doctors) followed suit,” says the 86-year-old man at this interview, sporting his trademark white turban.
We are at his home in Kuala Lumpur where he lives with his wife of 50 years, Datin Margaret Rowe. He met Margaret at Oxford University Hospital in Britain when he was doing his postgraduate studies. They married in 1967 and have two boys and a girl and four grandchildren.
Recently, the couple celebrated their golden anniversary with a grand dinner and the launch of the doctor’s autobiography, Doctor On The Move: Life’s Journey, which has been three years in the making.
THE EARLY YEARS
Dr Sambhi’s father, Gurbakhsh Singh, travelled from India to Penang in the 1920s in search of better prospects. Once he established himself on the island, he went back to India to get married and returned to Malaya with his new bride, Amarjit Kaur. A year after Dr Sambhi was born in 1931, his father moved the family to Kuala Lumpur and became the first Sikh to start a provision shop business in Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman).
Dr Sambhi is the second of eight siblings – five boys and three girls.
Perhaps it was fated that he would choose the specialisation that he did because Dr Sambhi was actually a premature baby!
Weighing just a little over 1kg at birth, he was so tiny that his parents could hold him in one hand. He was put in a little box with hot water bottles to keep him warm. Back then, even in the big hospitals, hot water bottles were used for preemies as there were no incubators, he recounts.
“The doctor told my parents that I would survive a few hours or a few days only. If I survived three months, I would survive until adulthood. My mother told me that I cried so much, like I really wanted to live,” he says.
Dr Sambhi jokes about being a preemie whenever the opportunity arises. “I was very keen to come into this world and came early. Since I am here, I am going to stay and live.”
He had his early education in KL, at the Batu Road School and Victoria Institution where he first thought about becoming a teacher; he later took a teacher’s advice and chose medicine instead. He studied at Universiti Malaya in Singapore.
After graduating in 1959, he worked as a junior doctor for a year at KL General Hospital (now Hospital Kuala Lumpur). He was then seconded by the Government to serve in Brunei for six months. From 1963 to 1966, he did his postgraduate studies in obstetrics and gynaecology in Oxford.
“I find obstetrics to be more interesting. You see the miracle of birth,” says the still enthusiastic doctor, who became the first male Sikh ObGyn in the country.
He is also the first doctor to introduce the vacuum extractor delivery method which has now replaced forceps delivery in Malaysia. In another first, Dr Sambhi was sent by the Government to Sarawak, where he served from 1967 to 1970.
A couple of years after returning from Sarawak, Dr Sambhi and his wife started their own private practice, Sambhi Clinic, in 1972. On Nov 28 last year, at 85, he retired after 55 years at that clinic and now jokes that as a result of his hard “labour”, he has, over the course of his life, supervised and handled about 50,000 deliveries.
Personally, he has delivered 6,995 babies in his maternity centre, which has recorded more than 17,000 deliveries. Yes, he kept records of the date, time, and type of delivery, and of every baby’s weight, gender, and length!
Things he’s noted over the years:
In 1972, Caesarean section operations were about 5 per cent of his deliveries. But by 2002, the Caesarean rate had risen to 25 per cent.
Interestingly, he delivered more boys than girls at a ratio of 106:100. And coincidentally, his first and last deliveries were boys.
And as for the apocryphal tale that more babies are born in the night than day? “Not true,” the good doctor insists, and he ought to know because he actually carried out tests. He divided the 24 hours in a day into eight-hour quadrants for the “test” and eventually concluded that “natural childbirths were equal throughout the eight-hour intervals”.
Dr Sambhi’s most unforgettable experiences, though, were working with the natives in interior Sarawak. He remembers operating in 1968 on an Iban woman to remove what turned out to be the largest tumour in Malaysia, weighing in at 34kg! The ovarian cyst had to be placed on a trolley to be moved away.
He is convinced from his encounters that the Hakka women back then in Sarawak had the shortest labour in the world – between one and four hours only. They were predominantly pepper farmers and toiled in the fields.
Dr Sambhi was also fascinated with the Penan birthing practice.
“The Penan men assisted their wives when they gave birth. They would build an elevated wooden bed two feet from the ground. The bed had a circular hole in the middle for the mother-to-be to place her bottom and deliver her baby.”
When the baby crowned, gravity would push it through the hole. Under the hole, there would be a large pile of dried leaves to help cushion the baby’s arrival.
WRITING A LIFE
Dr Sambhi was coaxed to write Doctor On The Move by his wife and other family members. In 2009, when he was semi-retired, his family again nudged him. “I had no excuse not to then,” he says with a laugh. “The family want to let people know about my life and want me to leave something behind for them.”
Six months after he started writing, though, he stopped after receiving the devastating news that his wife had cancer. Thankfully, she was given the all-clear some 18 months later, and he went back to writing.
His family was certainly correct to urge Dr Sambhi to put his life down on paper – despite his “hard labour” through the years, the man made time for a great many other passions in his life, much of it to do with giving back to society.
In 1982, he proposed the formation of the Heart Foundation of Malaysia and registered it two years later; the foundation is now at the forefront of campaigning for good heart health. It also maintains a halfway house for families of heart patients who come from outstation to KL for treatment.
When Dr Sambhi was president of the Kuala Lumpur Rotary Club (1981 to 1982), he set up the Research Fund under the KL Rotary Charity Foundation. As founder and chairman of the fund, Dr Sambhi is still actively involved in its work; he is also a trustee of the Ampang/Ulu Klang Sikh Temple.
In 2011, he was conferred the Malaysian Medical Association’s Outstanding Public and Healthcare Service Reward in recognition of his contributions to healthcare and related services.
But work did not consume this doctor – he made time for other things in life, too, from being the chairman of the Philharmonic Society of Selangor to president of the Malaysian branch of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the prestigious international gastronomic society.
Underlying all this is Dr Sambhi’s simple philosophy in life: “I want to encourage people to always do better and live a peaceful, long life!”
Doctor On The Move: Life’s Journey will be available at MPH Bookstores at the end of August. All proceeds from the book sales will be donated to the Heart Foundation of Malaysia.
Published at Mon, 28 Aug 2017 05:42:58 +0000