The Little Big Hospital on the Hill

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It began with the simple wish to provide quality healthcare for cancer patients from all walks of life.

The Mount Miriam Cancer Hospital (MMCH) in Fettes Park, Tanjung Bungah, gets the “Mount” in its name from the hill it sits on, while “Miriam” refers to Mother Mary. Six Roman Catholic nuns from the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM), driven by determination, compassion and, above all, a divine calling to serve and care for humanity, laid the foundation for the institution.

Sister Cyrilla Baptist.

Sister Cyrilla Baptist.

They took over the task in 1969 from the French Sisters of the Foreign Missions, popularly known as “Grey Sisters”. These Sisters were initially invited to work on the hospital project in 1963 by the first Bishop of Penang, the late Rt. Rev. Monsignor Francis Chan, but circumstance worked against them and they were unable to fulfil the task.

A terminal cancer patient himself, Chan firmly believed that the kind of excellent care he had been getting from his physician and nurses should be available to anyone with cancer. Unfortunately he did not live to see his idea come to fruition and it was his successor, Bishop Gregory Yong, who completed the project for him.

Construction of the hospital began in 1974. While waiting for the hospital’s occupancy certificate, the nuns went knocking door to door around and beyond Penang to seek donations.

The public gave generously, and so on February 21, 1976, MMCH was officially opened, making it the first non-profit cancer hospital in the region. The first cancer patient was admitted June 1 that year.

MMCH CEO Joan Lim-Choong.

MMCH CEO Joan Lim-Choong.

In the early days, the hospital did not have staff, beds or equipment, recalls MMCH’s Director of Mission Sister Cyrilla Baptist, an oncologist trained in England. The nuns concentrated on providing palliative care for those suffering from ailments associated with cancer. They were, and remain, resolute in preserving the dignity of the sick in their late stages of cancer.

There was strong camaraderie between the sisters and staff. They all stayed together on the fourth floor of the hospital, now occupied by the hospital administration, so as to be close to the patients. Additionally, the sisters would also clean the building, floor by floor, on a daily basis.

The FMDM Sisters are no doubt a tiny group but, as the hospital’s CEO Joan Lim-Choong proudly declares, they have “a mission with a hospital”. They are to serve the community with compassion, respect and integrity, regardless of ethnicity, religion or financial standing. And they also are to “treat the illness of the sick, poor and destitute”.

This mission to serve the community, adds Lim-Choong, is further boosted by the dedication and commitment of five oncologists and radiotherapists as well as trained post-basic oncologist nurses and medical officers who make their rounds in the 40-bed hospital.

Growth, Through Generosity

TomoTherapy HD machine.

TomoTherapy HD machine.

MMCH originally focused on providing for the needs of the terminally ill. It later extended its services to include curative treatment and symptom relief. In line with this expanded scope of care and treatment, a Theraton 780 Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machine was installed in 1979 and consequently 333 patients were treated that year.

By 1996, the number of patients had reached 1,100. A day chemotherapy unit was opened in 1999 and more sophisticated treatment machines were added in subsequent years. The first palliative care day clinic opened in 2001 and further developments saw a home care programme come into operation in 2005.

At present, the therapies the hospital provides are tomotherapy, stereotactic radiosurgery and radiotherapy, intensity modulated radiotherapy, image-guided radiotherapy, conventional radiotherapy, 3D conformal radiotherapy, 3D brachytherapy and chemotherapy.

Sister Pauline Sewell at the outpatient registration counter.

Sister Pauline Sewell at the outpatient registration counter.

Additionally, health screening services, outpatient care, inpatient care, patient relations, dietetic counselling, medical physics, laboratory service, pastoral care, ambulance service, paediatric oncology, late effects clinic and free clinical breast examination services are offered.

Over the years, the number of cancer cases treated in the hospital steadily rose. The five most common cancers detected in MMCH are breast cancer, cancer of the head and neck, cervical cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, and lung cancer. Cases of breast cancer have jumped since 1985, followed by cancer of the head and neck, and cervical cancer.

A plaque informing that the renovation of the Health Screening Centre was sponsored by the family of a deceased patient.

A plaque informing that the renovation of the Health Screening Centre was sponsored by the family of a deceased patient.

MMCH continues to provide cancer treatment and care at an affordable cost to the community at large, and generous donations from both the public and private sectors have enabled the hospital to keep firmly to its noble commitment. This is also made possible through fundraising events conducted by MMCH every year, such as art exhibitions, school plays, charity breakfast morning-cum-cancer awareness functions, charity food fairs and charity dinners.

On top of that, the Mount Miriam Development Fund assists the hospital in its efforts to continuously improve service standards, medical care, new technology advancement and infrastructure investment, while the Needy Cancer Patient Fund helps patients cover their cancer treatment and medical costs every year. The hospital disburses between RM1mil and RM1.4mil to patients. The Tomo (Machine) Fund helps MMCH finance its latest TomoTherapy HD machine which was purchased in 2013 at the cost of RM14mil, while the General Fund assists the hospital in operating expenses.

On the wall: the hospital’s appreciation of the generous donations from various benefactors and supporters.

On the wall: the hospital’s appreciation of the generous donations from various benefactors and supporters.

Given such donations, support and partnerships from many quarters, from 1985 to 2015 MMCH was able to disburse more than RM14.8mil to defray medical costs for the needy, in keeping with its mission to provide an institution in the northern region of the country which can provide good affordable cancer treatment.

MMCH also provides treatment for patients from outside the country, particularly Indonesia. In this regard, its Patients’ Relations Coordinator is available to assist patients to make appointments, flight confirmations, letters for visa extension, letters for insurance claims and accommodation arrangements.

From its humble beginnings MMCH has indeed evolved, but has strongly kept to its religious commitment to serve the sick of various backgrounds. It may be small in size, but it certainly has a big heart.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a fellow and head of the Nusantara Studies cluster in Penang Institute, feels that our overall health is important especially at a time when increasing bigotry and extremism give rise to frayed nerves.



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