Lisa Chan grew up with a condition that made her self-conscious about her outward appearance but made her aware of the importance of inner beauty. She opens up about how two doctors inspired her to join their profession and dedicate her life to helping others feel beautiful inside and out.
Everyone gets asked this question at some point in their childhood: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For Lisa Chan, there was no question about it: she wanted to become a doctor. Chan was diagnosed with Graves’ disease as a young girl, an immune-system disorder that causes an overproduction of thyroid hormones. It affects the body in a wide range of ways, most noticeably a swollen neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland, bulging eyes and weight loss.
Puberty is already a difficult time for any teenage girl, but Chan endured painful years at school being the odd one out and recalls hiding in the school library during breaks, safe among books, and ridicule from a clueless teacher who, unaware of her condition, compared her to a goldfish in front of her classmates.
Chan recalls all of this with barely a hint of trauma. She grew up shy and lonely but was very much loved by her family, who instilled in her the value of beauty in all its forms – not just in outward appearances.
“I used to be really self-conscious about my appearance, and I guess that’s partly why I was drawn to things like art and music,” she says. “Even sad experiences can have a beauty to them if it’s made you grow. You relate better to the world around you, and you become more resilient.”
Her saviours were Gary Wong and Wai Fan Chan, the two doctors who ultimately cured her and became her lifetime mentors. Kind and considerate, they’re credited by Chan for instilling in her the belief that there’s good in everyone, for inspiring her to pursue a career dedicated to serving humanity and helping others, and for bringing confidence and normalcy back into her life.
Lisa Chan remains stoic while recounting her tough childhood, but when talking about her two mentors she chokes back tears of emotion.
“I owe everything I do to them. They really showed me that a doctor’s office doesn’t have to be a scary place, and they did everything they could to look after me, to look after my parents, and give us hope that everything would be OK one day.”
While recovering from the illness, Chan made many trips to the hospital for treatments and blood tests, but ultimately surgery was inevitable. When she was just 16, Chan tells me, the gland in front of her throat had grown so large that it made breathing difficult. Dr Chan Wai Fan, her surgeon at the time, was with her every step of the way.
“He told me he’d hide the scar between my collarbones, so it wouldn’t be too visible when I grew older,” she tells me, while subconsciously patting the base of her neck. “He kept his promise; the scar is barely there anymore.”
Today, Chan is a general practitioner and the Co-founder of a medical centre with her husband, Alvin Lee, also a doctor. Perhaps due to her own experiences and her upbringing, she also has an avid interest in aesthetic medicine.
Chan graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and has a Master’s in Practical Dermatology with Distinction from Cardiff University; as well as Diplomas in Dermatology from Cardiff University and Queen Mary University of London. She also obtained a Diploma in Advances of Medicine at CUHK and a Diploma in Child Health at the University of Sydney. Since 2018, she’s obtained a second master’s at Queen Mary University of London.
I ask how she’s managed to do all this while running two clinics and, laughing, she replies, “My father-in-law is also a doctor and, along with my husband, we study a lot together. It’s a family bonding time for us and it also almost makes studying easier, as we can share notes and work on assignments together.”
For most people, a doctor’s office is an intimidating place, where the smell of antiseptic is strong and the lights are stark and cold. But Chan’s Tin Hau clinic is an entirely new world. I tell her it feels as if I’ve inadvertently walked into a spa or even a girl’s fantasy bedroom. She smiles, her eyes crinkling with warmth, and says, “I’ve put a lot of thought into creating this space, so people can feel relaxed and comfortable, just like how my own doctors made me feel safe and comfortable in their clinics.”
In a way, Chan’s clinic is an outward representation of who she is. All her hopes, dreams and convictions are on full display in every corner of her newly renovated office. A large mirror printed with the Hippocratic oath sits at the entrance to her office.
“I walk past it every morning and see my own reflection in it,” she says. “It’s a daily reminder of the oath I’ve taken – the part in the Hippocratic oath where it says: ‘May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.’ That really resonates with me.”
Even tissue boxes are printed with inspiring quotes, such as: “You were born an original work of art.” Art she’s painted herself, of white horses and cats and blue skies, and beautiful Chinese calligraphy by her own hand are placed sporadically around her office.
One particular piece, a singular Chinese character that says “Dream”, sits on her desk, next to a photo of herself and her mother.
“My mother introduced me to the world of art when I was small,” she says. “She brought me and my brother to classical music concerts and bought us a lot of beautifully illustrated storybooks. She loved classic movies and often talked about the actresses who inspired her – Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts were two of her favourites. She always emphasised their inner beauty, their kind souls, their authenticity and generosity, and not just their outer elegance.”
Chan’s own role models include Helen Keller, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and Emily Jane Brontë, influential women who also helped shape her own concept of beauty.
“They lived the lives they dreamt of and never let themselves be limited by any of the supposed restraints on women at the time or even physical disabilities,” Lisa Chan explains. “They made me realise that beauty is also about giving back and leaving a lasting legacy for the better.”
Today, her patients come to her for any number of problems, ranging from dermatological issues to aesthetic procedures. To Chan, medical aesthetics aren’t about guaranteeing or even encouraging perfection. But what she hopes she can do is to give her clients a small boost of confidence and to restore their self-worth.
“True beauty will radiate from the soul,” she says. “I particularly love this quote from Audrey Hepburn: For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”