While he is none of the above, anaesthesiologist Dr Hairil Rizal Abdullah sees sedating patients for surgery as akin to performing magic. By Eveline Gan

Dr Hairil Rizal Abdullah, Consultant, SGH Department of Anaesthesiology, likens his work to performing magic. As an anaesthesiologist, he is responsible for putting the patient to sleep, switching o his brain function, and taking over his breathing and other vital tasks so that the patient is able to undergo a procedure – even one as major as an organ transplant – safely and without pain.

“At the end of it, the patient is woken up, pain-free and walking, talking,” said Dr Hairil. While what the anaesthesiologist deals with isn’t an illusion, much like a magician, he meticulously prepares the patient for surgery, taking into consideration the risks of surgery and anaesthesia, as well as the patient’s overall health and fitness.

“When we put the patient to sleep, we’re not only targeting a specific organ or a single part of the body. The whole patient goes to sleep, so the risk assessment is very comprehensive. Any mistake would be catastrophic,” said Dr Hairil, who sub-specialises in perioperative medicine (which is concerned with the patient’s care, from the time that surgery is planned till recovery).

Indeed, perioperative physicians, he said, are concerned about giving the patient the best possible chance of recovering from surgery. “It is not just about whether the patient survives or not, but whether he has the best global outcome, best quality of life, least complication, whether major minor, and the most eicient way of getting there,” he added.

As a perioperative physician, he works closely with the surgeon and other doctors involved in the patient’s care to ensure that no aspect of the patient’s health is missed. For instance, older patients tend to suffer from a range of medical problems such as conditions of the heart, which is most common. Anaesthesia raises the risk of a stroke or heart attack in older people, said Dr Hairil, who is also Clinical Director of Perioperative Services at SGH's Anaesthesiology Department.

Medicines that the patient is on are also important, as some drugs are not safe for surgery. Blood thinners like aspirin and warfarin have to be stopped for a short period of time before surgery, as they can heighten the risk of bleeding, he said.

In his evaluation, he also considers the patient’s preferences. If the patient is leery of being conscious during surgery, general anaesthesia might be chosen instead of regional, which is more usual for a relatively minor procedure.

“It’s shared decision-making, based on the patient’s medical condition, preference and lifestyle,” said Dr Hairil, adding that the perioperative physician links everyone concerned together.

Dr Hairil completed his basic medical training in Malaysia, went on to Advanced Specialist Training in Singapore, and then further training in Toronto, in the sub-specialties of perioperative medicine and ambulatory anaesthesia.

It was at the University of Toronto that his passion for clinical research was ignited. “The exposure [to clinical research] in Toronto opened my eyes. From then on, I was inspired...to find new ways of improving surgical outcomes,” said Dr Hairil, who is currently looking into the problem of anaemia among patients undergoing surgery.

Despite his intense involvement and medical training, the father of two knows well to step out of his “doctor role” when his family requires medical treatment.“It can be very diicult to dissociate yourself when your own kid is going for a procedure. Still, I try my best to do so. The last thing I want to do is to add to the [doctor’s] stress level,” he said.

Outside of work, his time revolves around his family and personal passion for scuba diving and marine conservation. He continues to dive once or twice a year, and counts Raja Ampat in Indonesia as his favourite diving site.

This article was first published in Singapore Health, Mar/Apr 2018 issue. 

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