To mark the UK’s first-ever East and South East Asian Heritage Month, Professor Cheng-Hock Toh, the RCP’s immediate past academic vice president, shares his story. Cheng-Hock is professor of haematology at the University of Liverpool and Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
I was born in Ipoh, Malaysia as a fourth-generation Chinese. My great grandfather left China for economic reasons in the 1800s and to this day, my family still pay homage at the temple in Penang where he first gave thanks on arrival – gratitude for surviving a perilous sea journey and prayers for a better future. It is thanks to this courage and can-do spirit over the generations that I was provided with a comfortable upbringing in multi-cultural Malaysia. When I left home for the UK to do A-levels at a Somerset boarding school, my own journey was not comparable with his but did build resilience and fortitude for years through medical school at Sheffield and beyond.
There have been three major strands in my journey as a doctor. Firstly, my interest in haematology grew from a student elective at Johns Hopkins Hospital, USA. What I liked was the relevance of blood medicine to diverse areas in medicine and its integrated clinical and laboratory approach to patient care. I was also inspired by the founding vision of Johns Hopkins in committing to serving the needs of poor people regardless of sex, age or race. To this day, this internationally renowned clinical and academic centre remains sited in the area of greatest health and economic deprivation in Baltimore.
Another important strand also has roots in North America when I joined the Ontario Heart and Stroke Research Programme. This experience in basic science laid my foundations as a translational clinical investigator who could focus on areas of unmet need, such as in critical illness. I was fortunate that original discoveries led to a spin-out diagnostics company in sepsis. In addition, my experience of translating research towards patient benefit led to involvement with the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) to grow the next generation of research-active clinicians.
The third strand is in professional leadership, which includes being president of the British Society for Haematology (BSH) and academic vice president of the RCP. In both organisations, I have been determined to include more diverse voices to refresh and grow value. There has been impact at BSH and the academic in me always points to referenceable data! Equally at the RCP, the focus on equality, diversity and inclusion has been heartening. Work on health inequalities and equity of access to research for improved patient outcomes has also become more resonant in the NHS.
It has been 26 happy years since I started as a new consultant in a new city with a new family! My 26-year-old son is now shaping his own medical career to include working in low-income countries. To him, I share the intergenerational words of advice, which is to be the best that you can be. Do not forget kindness and compassion for those who risk the seas in search of a better future.