Tan Poh Kiang HCA 200k

Dr Tan Poh Kiang, President of HCA Hospice Care, crossing the finishing line of a 160km endurance run in 2016. This year, he is running 200km to raise $200,000 for HCA. All photos courtesy of Dr Tan Poh Kiang.

When Dr Tan Poh Kiang completed a 100-mile (160-km) run in 2016 to raise funds, his wife, Joan, wanted him to promise her that it would be his last.  

Unsure, Dr Tan left that request unanswered.

It was a good thing he did, because he has now committed himself to run 200-km in 45 hours at the Monster Ultra 200 this weekend.

When he had first broached the idea to his wife earlier this year, she had shot back: “No, that’s rubbish! Why must do it? Why cannot do other things?”

A wake-up call

But when God downloads an idea, the most rational response is to obey – no matter how humanly irrational the idea sounds.

Dr Tan Poh Kiang, 53, is the current president of the HCA Hospice Care (HCA), a registered charity that provides home hospice care for free to any patient facing life-limiting illnesses.

Tan Poh Kiang HCA 200k

Dr Tan (seated third from right), celebrating HCA’s 30th anniversary with President Halimah Yacob (seated centre) on March 15, 2019.

When he first took on the role in 2014 after a series of divine appointments, Dr Tan was excited to share the news with his friends and family.

But their responses shocked him.

“What is HCA Hospice? Is it new?”

Other doctors asked: “Where’s your building? How many beds do you have?”

It was a wake-up call. If HCA was not even recognised by medical practitioners, then how would people know to call them when the need arose?

“The tragic thing is, of the people who are referred, there are many who reject it because they think they cannot afford hospice care,” Dr Tan continued. “That’s why there is so much to do. I need to raise the awareness that HCA is free! We do not discriminate.”

When God says “run”, you run

In a rather unconventional way, Dr Tan explained how fund-raising is inextricably tied to raising awareness.

Fund-raising is not about asking for money, he maintains. Rather, it is a – hopefully creative and elegant – way of helping people know and understand the mission and cause better.

“But you can run what. You like running, right? Then you run lah.”

“No one listens if I just say, I want to tell you about HCA. But if I ask for money from people, they will ask why.

“It creates a stream of questions and conversation. And when people begin to feel for our cause, the money will come. That is the fundamental philosophy of fundraising.”

As HCA president, Dr Tan knew he needed to lead by example – modelling fundraising and awareness was a responsibility held by everyone in the organisation.

But he was also stuck: He did not play golf nor did he have extensive networks amongst the well-heeled in society.

“So I prayed, ‘God, how do we do this?’”

The prompting came: “But you can run what. You like running, right? Then you run lah.”

When death became personal

The idea finally took shape when Dr Tan’s younger daughter, who was only 10 then, quipped: “Pa, if you say, Raise $100k for 100k, that is quite a nice tagline.”

And run he did.

During the course of his five-year tenure as President, Dr Tan ran 100km in 2014, raising $152,000. In 2016, his 160km effort drew in $202,000 for the charity.

It is a tagline much easier said than done, however. Such distances are no small feat – 160km is the equivalent of almost four full marathons.

Tan Poh Kiang HCA 200k

Dr Tan (extreme left) and some of the Cheng running group. His wife, Joan, is next to him, with her brother Sim Lie at the back.

The training and logistical preparation leading up to each race was immense – as was the stress that Joan went through because of his runs.

“I could feel the pain and the fear. And the overcoming of the pain and fear.”

For almost two years, Joan’s request was quietly acceded to. Dr Tan’s runs were limited to weekly Saturday jaunts with a running group that included Joan and Ching Sim Lie, his brother-in-law.

One Sunday in March 2018, Sim Lie collapsed at home. Within 48 hours of being rushed to the hospital, he was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. Less than five months later, he was cremated on August 2, 2018.

It was a time of upheaval for Dr Tan, Joan and their family. They were exceptionally close to Sim Lie, who was a bachelor. He had been a regular visitor to their house and had helped to drive the kids to and from kindergarten.

“From the time my first daughter was born, we’ve always had him in our house. He had a key and suka-suka came and went,” said Dr Tan, who is reminded of his brother-in-law whenever he hits the 160-km mark of a 200-km run.

Sim Lie’s sudden passing was difficult and painful.

Tan Poh Kiang HCA 200k

Dr Tan, Sim Lie and Joan (left to right) at the hospital in March 2018 when Sim Lie was first diagnosed with liver cancer.

“I thought I knew everything about dying and death,” said Dr Tan. But it turned out he didn’t.

He had good reason to be familiar with death – firstly as a practising physician and, secondly, as president of Singapore’s largest and oldest hospice provider. He often accompanied staff on home visits to dying patients.

But when death lingered so close to home, things were different.

“I could feel the pain and the fear,” he said. “And the overcoming of the pain and fear. I saw, at close quarters, what it meant to be a living disciple, because Sim Lie died peacefully.”

A promise

So in August, grappling with the loss which coincided with the start of his fifth, and last, year as HCA president, an idea crept into his mind: Could he do one last endurance run?

The run would be his last hurrah – a farewell gift for HCA to raise funds and raise awareness for hospice care. It would also be a tribute to Sim Lie.

100km was done and dusted; 160km (100 miles) was completed. This time the challenge would be 200km.

“Last one. This one you better promise is the last one.”

It is not a distance declared out of confidence. On the contrary, Dr Tan is unable to guarantee that he can finish it, and “I cannot say that the decision came easily”.

But Dr Tan sought the Lord as he mulled over the idea. 

“God spoke to me. He said, ‘Look, there is influence that is positional and then there’s influence that is not position related. You still have your position, use your last burst of fire.’”

With that confirmation, Dr Tan shared his idea with Joan. Eventually, she was won over, but she told him: “Last one. This one you better promise is the last one.”

Laughing, Dr Tan said that he did promise her that. “She said this in front of my whole cell group! Now I have to answer to everybody else.”

Comrades and community

In the divine orchestration of events that only God is capable of, Dr Tan shares that others have come alongside him, both literally and figuratively.

Two others – both seasoned endurance runners – have heard about his cause and will be running the race with him. One is a Russian expatriate based in Singapore who had just returned in December, after spending time in Russia with her dying mother who was in the care of a hospice.

“Sometimes you can’t use words, but you certainly can use your life.”

“They are actually faster runners, but they want to go with me from start to end,” said Dr Tan.

Not only that, Dr Tan, who had initially planned three breaks – two 20-minute and one 45-minute rest stops – has been offered homes and offices that others have opened up for him and his running companions to rest.

Dr Tan is quick to add, however, that the run is not an exercise in self-promotion.

“I’m not in this for myself,” he says. “If God does not exist or if I were not Christ’s follower, I have no business struggling here – that’s for sure.

“It’s a calling. It takes a lot from me and it takes sacrifices from my wife and children.”

To him, the life of faith is not just lived out within the walls of the church. It is why Jesus left the 99 sheep to go out and search for the “one joker” (Luke 15:4), he said.

“So to me there is a compelling sense that some of us are not supposed to be kept in the church comfort zone. Sometimes you can’t use words, but you certainly can use your life.”

It is a radical obedience that is being worked out one agonising step at at a time. 

Dr Tan will be running 200km from Friday, March 29, 9pm, until Sunday, March 31, 6pm, starting and finishing at MacRitchie Reservoir. Find out more about his cause here

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Salt&Light writer Huey Ying is a millennial with a résumé to prove it – she was a plankton-sized part of the finance industry before serving in a Christian organisation. She loves the sea and you will find her somewhere near the water during her holidays.