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A Diagnosis For Life

by Ann Tsang / Images: Zachary Fu
Special thanks to the Hong Kong Golf Club

Dr. Walton Li Wai-tat established the Department of Ophthalmology at the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital (HKSH) in 1980. Today, he is Chairman of the Board of Directors and Medical Superintendent of the HKSH, continuing the distinguished legacy of a family of doctors that many refer to as the ‘Li dynasty of medicine’ in Hong Kong’s history. Dr. Li talks to HK Golfer about his life’s work, the training programmes at the HKSH, his brush with cancer, and his passion for golf.

It is no surprise that people in the know refer to a family of doctors in Hong Kong’s medical history as the ‘Li Dynasty of Medicine’, given this particular family’s collective achievements in the field.


Sitting in his office high atop Happy Valley, in a pristine white coat, Dr. Walton Li bears the responsibility of maintaining his family’s reputation. As Chairman of the Board of Directors and Medical Superintendent of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital (HKSH), under his leadership, the HKSH has evolved into the most prestigious private hospital in Hong Kong with new medical technologies, state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure, and a level of patient care which comes from the heart. 


Dr. Li’s uncle, Dr Li Shu-fan, his uncle, was a renowned surgeon and physician who served as personal medical advisor to Dr Sun Yat-sen and the first Minister of Health of Dr Sun’s government in 1912. A native of Taishan in western Guangdong province, Dr Li Shu-fan spent a few years in America at a young age before returning to Hong Kong to join the anti-Manchu revolutionary movement led by Dr Sun. 


Returning to Hong Kong in 1905, Dr Li Shu-fan joined the Tongmenghui (Revolutionary Alliance) and enrolled at the Hong Kong College of Medicine (later incorporated into the Faculty of Medicine of The University of Hong Kong) where he graduated in 1908. He then further studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and upon his return, he served the provisional government as its first Minister of Health, upon the invitation of Dr. Sun, President of the provisional government. 


In the early 1920s, he became Dean of the Kung Yee University Medical School in Canton before returning to Hong Kong in 1926 to become the Superintendent and Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Yeung Wo Nursing Home, which was established in 1922 in Happy Valley with only 28 beds. 


Dr Li led Yeung Wo through the difficult years, renaming it the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital, rebuilding and reorganising it into a new medical facility, and transforming it from a nursing home into a modern medical centre and quality health care provider in Hong Kong during his long tenure. 

After 40 years at the helm of HKSH, Dr Li Shu-fan passed away in 1966, and was succeeded by his brother, Dr. Li Shu-pui, Dr. Walton Li’s father. As Chairman of the Board of  Directors and Medical Superintendent of the Hospital for the next 40 years, Dr. Li Shu-pui, a medical doctor specialising in otorhinolaryngology, continued the expansion and development of HKSH by introducing innovative medical technologies, adding new blocks and services, and consolidating HKSH’s reputation as the premiere private hospital in Hong Kong. He passed away at the age of 102 in 2005 and was succeeded by his youngest son, Dr Walton Li.

HK Golfer: When did you first become interested in medicine?

WL: Actually my first interest was in Chemistry as I was very inspired by my teacher at Cambridge, and I went on to study chemistry at the University of Southern California, from where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science. But I found the theory to be a bit too much for me, so then I decided I wanted to become a missionary, so I pursued medical training at the School of Medicine at UCLA, where I obtained a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1974.

During that time, one of my fellow students talked about committing suicide, which led me to be interested in psychiatry, but I didn’t do very well. I did however exceed in gynaecology, however my uncle didn’t think that was the best path for me. Then I met a Professor of Ophthalmology who became my idol and who led me to pursue that. I really enjoyed (and still do) the surgery aspect; it’s almost like art – when you successfully complete an operation, you have this feeling of ecstasy and achievement. Everything is under your control – like playing golf, it’s all about technique and skill, your hand
and your judgment.


HKG: So when did you start playing golf?

WL: I was working at a VA (Veteran Affairs) psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles, where they had a pitch and putt course set up, and so I started to play with some of the patients. Then I came across a shop down the street which was offering packages of seven lessons for a very reasonable price. Back in those days, it was much easier to access courses, so I went once a week. I found it to be a great distraction, a stress reliever, and a perfect way to spend a few hours. It was also a very sociable experience as the people were very friendly. I have now been playing for more than 30 years; I continued to play during the time I had cancer.


HKG: You fought cancer and came through. What do you think are the biggest issues facing cancer patients?

WL: When I had cancer, I had this dark shadow hanging over me. Approximately half of cases can be cured or controlled, but when you know it has gone beyond or it is terminal, then the biggest issue is fear – not only for the patient, but for their family members. It’s a huge battle to fight, as something has invaded your body, so we as doctors have to help to fight that battle with the most positive attitude possible. We need to help to minimise the fear and pain, so that patients can go with dignity rather than anger or other negative feelings.

Incidentally, my wife Ava (Kwong) is the Founder and Chairperson of the Hong Kong Hereditary Breast Cancer Family Registry. She was Assistant Dean at the University of Hong Kong from 2013 to 2018 and is the first woman to be a Council Member of the College of Surgeons of Hong Kong. 


HKG: Going back to golf. Do you encourage the playing of the sport among your colleagues?

WL: Yes of course! Every Wednesday, there is a group of 24 doctors who play together. We started in the 1980s. Not only is it a stress-relieving activity, it’s also great for social bonding and finding good playing partners. 


HKG: How often do you play?

WL: Around three times a week. Not only do I play with my colleagues on Wednesdays, I also play with my son Brian on a regular basis. It’s a binding thing which makes us see each other regularly and really have a good time as family.


HKG: It appears that determined to make HKSH a comprehensive medical institution serving the local community with better quality service and excellent care. You have been introducing new medical services and technology, training the best and brightest, and employing the most qualified and experienced to make every patient feel satisfied from the day of registration to the day of discharge.

WL:  Yes. Currently the departments and centres at HKSH include Ophthalmology, Dentistry, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Haematology, Nephrology, Paediatrics, Respiratory Medicine, Women’s Health and Obstetrics, Surgery, Anaesthesiology, Medicine, Orthopaedics and Traumatology, Physiotherapy, Cardiology, and Clinical Psychology. I want the HKSH to provide ‘whole-person care’ and a ‘Total Patient Experience’.

In 1997, together with Professor S. P. Chow, we initiated a programme to enable HKU medical students to be attached to the HKSH for surgical and medical training to familiarise them with medical practises in the private sector. The programme initially had an annual intake of over 100 students and is still going strong today. 

I want to achieve the goal of making HKSH an even more excellent and comprehensive medical centre through research, collaboration and most importantly, training programmes for doctors and nurses. The better you train the next generation of doctors and nurses, the better it is for medical care and services for our patients in the future.