At 19 years of age, while attempting to escape before the Japanese army occupied Singapore during the Second World War, Dr Chi Nan Chen was shipwrecked and almost drowned after the ship he was on was bombed by Japanese planes. After being carried away by the currents and adrift in the water for 30 hours, exhausted, he spotted an island to swim to in the early morning light. He was later rescued by local inhabitants who generously gave him refuge in their homes. Chi Nan eventually returned to Singapore, survived the years of the Japanese occupation, and resumed his medical studies after the war ended.
Chi Nan graduated from medicine in Singapore in 1951 and was a general practitioner there until he moved to Canada in 1975. He entered the UBC psychiatric residency program when he was 56 years old, after completing a rotating internship in Saskatchewan (which in contrast to balmy Singapore was considered to be Siberia).
By 1983, he completed his FRCP requirements and embarked on a second career as a psychiatrist at Royal Columbian Hospital. He was an essential part of a busy psychiatry department treating in-patients while sharing in the coverage of emergency psychiatry and providing in-hospital consultations. His equanimity was particularly useful in the care of patients with borderline personality disorder, and his years of experience in hospital politics was appreciated by the department members. He served in unpaid administrative posts and provided some afternoons to the New Westminster Mental Health Centre. He retired from hospital practice at age 75 but continued to provide psychiatric care in Vancouver mental health clinics until his late 80s.
He was a most congenial and kind colleague who was also able to speak Cantonese and Mandarin, which was useful as the number of Chinese-speaking immigrants surged in BC. His personal vision and efforts led to the creation (in 2005) of the chair in medical ethics at the National University of Singapore, which was named in honor of his physician father, Chen Su Lan.
In his later years, he was engaged in perfecting his writing skills while maintaining a keen interest in medical topics. Just before he turned 90, he fired off a letter to the BC Therapeutics Initiative on the harms of statins after becoming aware of a biochemical pathway impacted by statins parallel to the downstream reduction of cholesterol levels, and after consulting with colleagues in Singapore and the UK.
At the time of his death (28 September 2020), he had been happily married to his wife, Seok Im, for 67 years, with whom he brought up one son and four daughters.
—B. De Freitas, MDCM, FRCP(C)
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