Dr Yahya: The Man Who Tun M Trusted with His Heart


Dr Yahya: The Man Who Tun M Trusted with His Heart

AWANI Review’s Mariam Azmi meets the heart surgeon who carved his name in Malaysian medicine for carrying out the first heart transplant locally and had a leading role in setting up the Institut Jantung Negara where he operated on Tun M’s heart.

This is one man who fixes broken hearts literally.

Cardio-surgeon Tan Sri Dr Yahya Awang not only has set up the National Heart Institute (IJN) and Cardio Vascular Sentral Kuala Lumpur (CVSKL) but he is also probably the one keeping the Prime Minister’s heart pumping.

Yahya is Tun Dr Mahathir’s personal cardio surgeon, who performed two coronary artery bypasses on the man who is now the oldest elected politician in the world.

We might not be the most experienced team in the world but I felt we could do it. If you follow protocol, standard operating procedures and the surgical steps, very few things could go wrong

“I was young at the time but by then we had been doing surgery for five years in the General Hospital of Kuala Lumpur (GHKL). We might not be the most experienced team in the world but I felt we could do it. If you follow protocol, standard operating procedures and the surgical steps, very few things could go wrong. 

“Why I was chosen? You have to ask Dr Mahathir himself,” laughs Dr Yahya, who is 68 years old now.

A six footer, Yahya in his white doctor’s coat and grey hair can seem overwhelming.  Yet, when he smiles, he puts one at ease almost automatically. At first glance, the office of Yahya appear organized and cosy. Quaint little bookshelves surrounded the office with books ranging from different topics like world cities to the country’s economy.

Yahya has obviously come far, from his early days as a medical student to the time he performed the first ever heart transplant in Malaysia.

He is the son of former Penang state governor, Tun Datuk Dr Awang bin Hassan and nephew of Malaysia's second Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. Despite his family’s political lineage, he was adamant to pursue a career in medicine. 

“I actually come from a family of doctors. My brother and aunty were all doctors. Naturally over the dinner table, we always talked about medicine and so, I floated into the speciality.”

“When I went to UK to do my postgraduate studies, my colleague Dr Rozali Wathooth, who was then doing cardiac surgery told me Malaysia needed more cardiac surgeons because there were so many patients that needed our help. So, I went into cardiac surgery on the advice of my good friend,” said Yahya.

In 1998, he achieved a major milestone in Malaysia healthcare as he performed the first heart transplant at IJN. 

He reveals what contributes towards the success rate of a heart transplant. 
“The main thing that is crucial is what we call ‘ischemic time’. Which means from the time we harvest the heart from the donor to the time we transplant it to the recipient.”

“The second main thing is the grouping, which means the matching of the blood type and the size of the heart. The longer you take for the overall time, the lesser chance of the best result,” says Yahya.

Cardiovascular disease or commonly known as heart disease is the number one cause of death in Malaysia today, symptoms for this disease are known to be silent. Most people therefore neglect going for regular check-ups.

Apart from congenital heart diseases (people born with heart diseases) Yahya advises males that are pushing 40 years old to go for regular heart check-ups and for females around the age of 45 years old.

Newly built CVSKL

Dr Yahya Awang set up the  Cardio Vascular Sentral Kuala Lumpur (pic)

He is currently chairman of CVSKL, a private hospital that specializes in cardiac and vascular diseases. It is located in the city's transportation hub in KL Sentral.

CVSKL is on a smaller scale compared to IJN, which was built with taxpayer’s money and aimed to cater for the needs of the country.

“CVSKL is a private venture, I intend to make it a first class hospital and I think we are on the road to become the best in this region.

“It caters to the needs of the nation so that Malaysians don’t have to travel abroad. I think medical tourism is a very important aspect, for income generation. We do have first class facilities here for screening; patients who might look well but have heart problems inside,” says Yahya.

Despite coming from a family of politicians, Yahya is not really keen to talk about politics, despite it being right after the General Election.

He, however, points out that the previous government has managed to maintain an excellent medical program for Malaysians. There may have been obstacles in the past but that has not deterred improvements in the provision of medical care and services.

For those aspiring to follow in Yahya’s footsteps, he urges for them to be passionate about this speciality.

“Be prepared to work day in and day out with lots of stamina. I’m glad now we have a training program for cardiac surgeons. A four-year training program after they finish their initial training. I look forward to the speciality growing," he adds.