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Tribute to Dr. Cynthia Goh

By Salma Choudhury

25th January, 2022 is a black day for me. It is the day I learnt that my dear friend Cynnthia Goh is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer and in palliative care. Through a mutual acquaintance, Cynthia wrote, “Personally tell my friend Salma Choudhury this news. I could not bear to let her know, and I don’t wish for her to hear indirectly. She really was the one who started palliative care in Bangladesh. Our friendship is from the time she came to Singapore and visited me in Assisi Hospice in 1995 not long after ASHIC Foundation started, was what made me choose to start the Lien Collaborative in Bangladesh. I remember it took 18 years to fulfill that desire. But all in God’s time! Thank you for your friendship and our journey together.”

The person who has been most pivotal in spreading the practice of palliative care across Asia was now the recipient of its compassionate benefits.

Cynthia’s news had me crying for a long time, reminiscing about the bond we first shared as bereaved mothers. When I first visited her in 1995, I mentioned to her how my depression from losing my son had propelled a housewife into starting ASHIC, Foundation for Childhood Cancer. Cynthia’s journey as a medical practitioner was different than mine, but our destination was the same. We became fast friends and would always meet up whenever I visited Singapore. Over time, our families also met each other. At her invitation both ASHIC, and I personally, became members of APHN.

On my first day at Assisi Hospice with her, she took me along to two of her home visits. Watching her compassionate attitude towards the patients reminded of the incredible care my family received from the Palliative Care Team in London, where my son was treated 1992-93. In the last two days of his young life, Ashiq was spared the feeling of intense pain through palliative care, and his transition to the after life was managed as gently possible. With Cynthia doing this level of quality work so close to Bangladesh prompted me to request her to come to our country and teach our medical community about the practice.

At the 3rd SIOP Asia conference held in Bangladesh in 2004, as one of the organizers, I invited Cynthia to be a speaker. She and her colleague Rosalie Shaw held a session on palliative care, which was well received. I later hosted a social event for all conference participants and took the opportunity to introduce her to key personnel at BSMMU.

In 2005, ASHIC was one of few recipients of a large grant through the “My Child Matters” initiative by UICC and sanofi-aventis. The grant was given to establish Bangladesh’s first palliative care unit and the first person I gave the happy news to is Cynthia. She was delighted on our behalf and provided important guidelines for our program. I once again requested her to help grow palliative care in Bangladesh. She eventually established the Lien Collaborative program to comply with their charter to affect change through government sponsored initiatives. It is only then that BSMMU entered the palliative care ecosystem in Bangladesh.

When Cynthia came to Dhaka to initiate the program between BSMMU and Lien Foundation, she stayed at my home. We had some lovely times together, all of which now remain etched in the memory.

In 2013, Cynthia nominated me as one of five Asian Women in Palliative Care for my work through the ASHIC Palliative Care Unit, which is Asia’s first palliative care center for pediatric patients. The Lien Foundation created a documentary film on these five women titled ‘After Cicely’, and I had the privilege of attending the launching program in Singapore. After a few months, while I was recovering from a sudden stroke, Cynthia remained in touch with me regularly, providing encouragement and support.

In 2020, the story of Bangladeshi migrant worker Sikdar Rana made the news. In his final stages of an inoperable stomach cancer, he was under Cynthia’s care and this 34 year old man only wanted to come back to Bangladesh to see his son before he died. Dealing with lockdowns from the COVID pandemic, Cynthia mobilized a crowd-funding effort to help fund an air ambulance to bring him back. With the help of my son and daughter-in-law’s connections in their peer community, who are Bangladeshi expatriates living in Singapore, the crowdfunding effort was successful within 5 days, and Rana was able to come back.

There are so many examples of Cynthia’s heart-felt compassion for her fellow beings. With her deep faith in God, no task was too small for her to tackle and she embraced all opportunities to serve others.

Our last physical meeting was in Singapore, in November 2018, when she took me for coffee at Hotel Sheraton. Once we were done with the work chatter about submitting Dr. Shahinur Kabir into the Palliative Care session, we spoke for a long time about many other topics. Our decades long friendship was that of two trailblazers but also of two mothers dealing with life’s trials and tribulations, loss and grief, moments of joy and pursuits of happiness. She excitedly talked about her vacation to Norway, her face full of vitality and hope. She was a walking icon of grace and kindness.

After nearly thirty years of friendship, Cynthia’s passing leaves a great hole in my heart. I attended the virtual service organized in her honor by APHN, but it remains a deep regret that we never got to say a proper goodbye.

Life has thrown us many unwanted and unexpected curveballs but I’d like to believe that we drew strength from each other. We respected each other’s achievements and could always find some inspiration to keep moving forward. At the end of this worldly life, perhaps it is better to remember her smiling and animated, talking happily about her trip.

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