Lifelong Focus on Healthcare

Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar switched from delivering babies to caring for the aged, and she has found it to be most rewarding. Now she is dedicating her efforts to benefit the community

Everybody wants to stay young for life, and this obsession for youth has spawned a multi-billion dollar business. Globally, the value of the anti-aging industry was worth US$261.9 bil in 2013, according to BCC Research, a publisher of technology market research reports based in Massachusetts, United States. But for Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar, anti-aging is more than just about getting rid of wrinkles. “It is about addressing your health issues,” she tells Focusweek in a recent interview.

She is founder and executive chairman of PrimaNora Medical Centre, a provider of preventive medicine. Basically, it involves the application of scientific knowledge to detect, prevent, treat or reverse age-related disorders and diseases. While she deals with health problems now, Nor Ashikin actually started out delivering babies.

She began her medical career as an obstetrician and gynaecologist and once even delivered as many as 25 babies within a span of 24 hours. Apart from her medical practice, Nor Ashikin has another pursuit – giving back to her community by empowering women with knowledge on their health issues.


Active teenage years

Nor Ashikin was born in Seremban, Negri Sembilan but moved to Singapore at a very young age. Under her mother’s care, she grew up to be a carefree teen who was actively involved in various activities such as gymnastics, taekwondo and basketball, among others.

She recalls being very cheeky in her teenage years – just like any person at that age. “I used to climb up the tree and whistled at strangers who walked by just to see their reaction since they could not see anyone around,” she says with a laugh.

The seed of her interest in the medical field was planted when she was very young. “My mother was a nurse and she used to take me to the hospitals and clinics,” she says. “In my mind, I knew I wanted to become one of them (medical practitioners).”

Her mother also gave her a more altruistic reason to pursue medicine. “She told me how by becoming one of them I could do more for the community and therefore bring value to society. However, back then I was still too young and her words did not connect with me,” she adds.

Nor Ashikin went to the Seraya Primary School and then the Tanjong Katong Girls School before enrolling at the Raffles Institution for A-levels.

While waiting for her A-levels results, she tutored an expatriate’s children and was paid S$350 – a princely sum for her at that time. With the money, she bought her mother a clock. “That was the first gift I ever bought her,” she says.

For some technical reasons, Nor Ashikin could not find a place in any of Singapore’s universities, forcing her to return to Malaysia where she enrolled at University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in the late 1970s. “It was a tough choice,” she says.


Love in the library

Nor Ashikin moved back to Malaysia alone, and her first days at UKM was a culture shock. “I stood out like a sore thumb,” she recalls.

As fate would have it, she also found love there. “I have no regrets coming to UKM. That’s where I met my husband,” she says.

She and Datuk Dr Aminuddin Ahmad were classmates. He is now professor of Medicine, Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Universiti Teknoloji Mara.

The two of them got closer when Nor Ashikin began to help Aminuddin in Mathematics and Statistics. “He needed help with those two subjects. I’m not sure if that was just an excuse,” she says with a chuckle.

Their romance blossomed in the library and just in their second year at university, they decided to get married. “We were very much in love,” she says.

The couple turned out to be among the first few in their batch to tie the knot.

“My mom cried when I informed her of my decision to get married because she was concerned that I might not complete my studies, coupled with the fact that Aminuddin was also a student,” she says.

Just a year later, Nor Ashikin broke the news of her pregnancy to her mother. “She cried for the second time for the same reason. But I promised her that I would do well in my studies.”

She gave birth to her first child, Dr Liyana Dhamirah, during the final year of her studies.

Her determination and focus during the last few years of her studies paid off. Nor Ashikin graduated with a distinction.


Juggling studies and childcare at the university

Nor Ashikin recalls nodding off in class. “I was so tired all the time. There was a lecturer who used to throw pieces of chalk at me because of that,” she says.

Since her husband was in the same class, she relied on him to provide her with the notes whenever she missed something in class.

It was a hectic schedule for her most of the time – what with having to juggle between looking after her daughter and studying for her final exams. But she has no regrets.

“My husband and I managed to save a lot on our expenses because we could share meals, books and even accommodation. It was a blessing in disguise,” she says.

She also had other intentions. “I wanted to prove to my mother and the lecturers that marriage and having a child are no hindrance. If anything, I was even more focused and determined to do well.” These circumstances, she adds, shaped her during her early years.

Prior to her graduation, she was sent to Tanjung Karang, Selangor, on an outpatient public health posting. “It was challenging but I also promised my mother that I would no longer be a burden on her. I decided to stop getting anymore financial help from her,” she says. At the same time Aminuddin also stopped seeking his family’s help “so we made do with what we had from the monthly allowance that came with the scholarship”.


Special interest in obstetrics and gynaecology

The couple graduate in 1984. She was sent to the Malacca General Hospital as a registrar. That was when she decided to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

When the government introduced the masters’ programme, Nor Ashikin enrolled for a Masters in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (ObGyn) at UKM, and she received her training at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL).

She describes the clinical experience in HKL as akin to “commando training”. “We had patients coming in from various parts of Malaysia – from Raub to Rawang. There were cases involving ruptured uterus and retained placenta – which are very rare cases. When we had such situations, we had to be quick in the decision-making process.

“That was why HKL recorded up to 30,000 deliveries per annum back then. And imagine we had to fight for our patients as there was only one operation theatre,” she says.

She concluded the final year of her masters programme with an attachment at The Leicester Royal Infirmary in the United Kingdom.


Setting up her own private practice

After spending close to a year in the United Kingdom, Nor Ashikin came back to Malaysia and began her career as a specialist-cum-lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at HKL.

However, as responsibilities were mounting, she decided to leave and subsequently, established her own private practice at Pantai Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

During her years in Pantai, Nor Ashikin forged a strong partnership with the late Dr Yeo Oon Hock, founder of Pantai Medical Centre.

She has fond memories of Yeo, describing him as a humble man.

She also enjoyed the more than two decades she spent as a gynaecologist. “The appreciation shown by my patients kept me going over the years. It is not about the money but the value behind it,” her face beams with delight as she shares this.


Turning point in her career

In 2007, she left Pantai Medical Centre and established PrimaNora Medical Centre. During the early years of PrimaNora, she was still serving as a gynaecologist – making diagnosis of fibroid tumours, endonetriisis and giving oral contraceptives – “for the bread and butter”.

But her career took a turn when she fell ill. “At that point, I was stressed out a lot and doing more than what I needed to do. It was then I began to go on medication.

“It took 10 doctors to diagnose me. After an MRI and biopsy, it has recently been confirmed that I have a rare medical condition.”

The pain of having to get multiple diagnoses led to her interest in healthy-ageing management. “I wanted to understand how our body works. Instead of taking drugs to mask the symptoms, we need to look at the root of our health problems,” she says, referring to the field of anti-ageing.

There is a common misconception that anti-aging revolves around getting rid of wrinkles with the use of treatments such as botox, she says. The fact is that the field is about age management. Sometimes also known as advanced preventive medicine, it is the application of scientific knowledge to detect, prevent, treat or reverse age-related disorders and diseases.

“Conventional medicine is sick care (caring for the sick) whereas anti-ageing medicine is healthcare,” she says.

“Instead of prescribing drugs to mask the symptoms, we look at the root of the health problem. Essentially, we treat patients with nutritional medicine and ensure they have the right dose of nutrients,” she explains.

Patients are required to take the genetics and DNA profiling to enable Nor Ashikin to determine the potential health risks based on their prevailing health status. “With the results, I can come up with a nutritional regime, which includes suitable supplements and vitamins, and decide on bioidentical hormone treatment.

“Bioidentical hormone refers to a compound that contains similar chemical and molecular structure as the hormones produced in the human body. That is the beauty of understanding the anti-ageing medicine. I look upon it as an integrative healthcare.”

In the last few years, the field has expanded beyond its woman clientele. “These days, I do have male clients too,” she says.

“At the end of the day, when you take all the supplements well, you would be able to optimize the hormones. When you are healthy on the inside, it will manifest itself on the outside.”

Health and beauty are inseparable, explains Nor Ashikin. One can’t argue against that. Nor Ashikin looks a lot younger than her age.



On a mission to empower women

The wellbeing of women lies at the heart of Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar’s altruistic pursuits. “When I was a gynaecologist at Pantai Medical Centre, I already made it my mission to ensure that women enjoy good health,” she says.

“I felt the need to share my knowledge with other women,” says the founder and executive chairman of PrimaNora Medical Centre.

However, her work as a gynaecologist “kept me within the four walls of my office”. Her only contact with her patients was through the one-on-one consultations with them.

To give herself greater access to those who may need to learn more about taking care of their own health, Nor Ashikin joined several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to reach out to them.

She got involved in several outreach programmes after she was appointed as chairman of the public awareness panel for the Malaysian Menopause Society.

She started giving talks on healthcare across the nation. “I even went to places such as Sandakan, Bintulu and Labuan. Of course I knew those who attended the talks would never come to my clinic but that was fine by me. That has never been my intention anyway,” she says.

Nor Ashikin was later roped by then Women, Family and Community Development Minister Tan Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil to serve in the public sector. In 2001, she assisted in the effort to outline the Nur Sejahtera, a woman’s health programme. She was later appointed co-chairman of the programme, a position she served for eight years.


Other pursuits

Even as she spent time helping mothers, Nor Ashikin was also busy doing things for babies. She was involved in an effort to design an 18-hour programme to help Pantai Medical Centre achieve World Health Organisation (WHO) recognition as a baby-friendly hospital.

To achieve that status, up to 80% of the hospital staff must be equipped with knowledge about breastfeeding. “That means nurses and midwives must go through the curriculum,” she says.

For the casual onlooker, Nor Ashikin is one busy woman. She has a busy daily schedule. Yet she does not neglect her family.

In fact her family is everything to her. “What has really shaped and moulded me is my family,” she says.

Today, Nor Ashikin is the proud mother of five children. Her two eldest – Dr Liyana Dhamirah and Dr Anisa Aisyah – have followed in her footsteps.

Nor Ashikin also sees herself as a lifelong learner. In 2011, she, her husband Datuk Dr Aminuddin Ahmad and Liyana – their eldest child – enrolled for the Master of Science in Anti-Aging, Aesthetics and Regenerative Medicine at the UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur.

They graduated in 2013, passing with flying colours.


Published in FOCUSWEEK,  22 Feb 2017