Nfld. & Labrador

Dr. Kim Hong remembered as 'a legend' of cancer care in N.L.

A man who arrived in St. John's as a teenager with only scraps of English and then proceeded to dedicate his life to changing cancer care across Newfoundland and Labrador has died.

Hong died Monday at the age of 83

Dr. Kim Hong died Monday at the age of 83, leaving behind a legacy of cancer care and promoting multiculturalism. (Eastern Health)

A man who arrived in St. John's as a teenager with only scraps of English and then proceeded to dedicate his life to changing cancer care across Newfoundland and Labrador — along with thousands of patients' lives — has died.

Tributes have been pouring in for Dr. Kim Hong following his death Monday at the age of 83, from the premier pausing before his weekly pandemic briefing to offer condolences, to former colleagues, to hundreds of messages on social media from former patients and patients' families.

Hong was born in a small village in Guangdong Province, China, and arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador at the age of 13 to work alongside his grandfather at a laundry on Gower Street. After speeding through 11 grades in eight years, he put himself through Dalhousie University medical school and a radiology residency in Toronto, before returning to the province as a radiation oncologist.

For the next 35 years, he shaped how cancer treatment was delivered across Newfoundland and Labrador, helped create what is now known as the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre, and trained the next generations of physicians at Memorial University's medical school.

"He was a bit of a legend," said Dr. Jonathan Greenland, a radiation oncologist and former student of Hong's who also worked alongside him for many years.

What set Hong apart was not only his medical expertise but his ability to connect to a person amid their illness.

"If he told you about a patient, he'd spend maybe two minutes talking about the medical part, and eight or nine minutes  talking about where they were from, who they were. Dr. Hong was famous for that," Greenland told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"He made it his business to know every part of this island. Not just the geography, but about the people themselves. I think that really taught a lot of us to realize that these cancers don't define who our patients are; it's just one of the things that they have."

Paying respects to a much-admired, innovative, and dedicated provider of cancer care in this province - the late Dr. Kim Hong. 8:36

Rural advocate

While Hong helped found the cancer centre in St. John's, he took pains to spread his expertise across the province by helping create the provincial outreach cancer clinic that visited spots like Burin, Grand Falls-Windsor and Corner Brook.

"We were one of the very first clinical services to provide a provincial program, and he made sure we accessed these rural areas," said Greenland.

He was always a joy to talk to.- Dr. Jonathan Greenland

Hong's legacy also lives on in all the small communities he touched through his compassion.

"I think for a lot of people, it's that connection to the people of the province and the connection to rural Newfoundland, and understanding the geography and the history of the people here, and using that understanding to really tailor their treatments to fit them, as opposed to the other way around," said Greenland.

Hong's drive to connect others is now enshrined in an endowment fund that bears his name, organized in his honour by colleagues, friends and former patients. It supports people in a variety of cancer-related disciplines — from pharmacists to clinicians — in their pursuit to continued education.

"It's really strengthened our program dramatically, because most of these other disciplines don't have any funding to continue their education," said Greenland, adding it matters particularly for Newfoundland and Labrador as most opportunities to do so are elsewhere in the world.

"Just to travel to a meeting or something costs a fortune, and it's really beyond the reach of most of our workers. so that sort of support is massively beneficial."

Senator David Wells presents Hong with a medal honouring his support of the Chinese community in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2018. (Alick Tsui)

Community champion

While Hong's medical achievements make it sound as if he didn't have much time to spare, he was equally driven toward organizing and celebrating multiculturalism, particularly the province's Chinese community.

Hong founded the Chinese Association of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1976, and at its largest-ever Chinese New Year celebration in 2018 was awarded a medal from the Senate of Canada recognizing his community work, as well as his oncology contributions.

In the 1970s he also co-founded the Newfoundland Multicultural Council, as well as being appointed to the federal Canadian Council of Multiculturalism.

He leaves behind his wife, Mely, whom he met in the air, as the two flew from Vancouver to Hong Kong in 1963 on separate journeys to visit family. The two married a year later at the Cochrane Street United Church and had five children.

Hong retired from practising medicine in 2007, but the accolades continued: he was made an honorary lifetime member of both the Canadian Medical Association as well as the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association.

With his passing, Greenland said he'll always remember the man Hong was, as much as his achievements.

"He was really, really fun," said Greenland. "He was always a joy to talk to, and he was very calm, very understanding, very much a mentor."

Hong was buried in St. John's on Friday.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show