To reconstruct a face and give an accident victim in Myanmar a new lease of life. To enable a farmer in Cambodia to work his fields again by treating his hernia. To heal a woman disfigured by goitre in the Philippines so she no longer has to hide behind a scarf… Dr Lim Thiam Chye and Dr Anthony Tang from the Department of Surgery at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, along with like-minded colleagues, have been transforming lives through surgery in underprivileged areas in the region, paying for these trips out of their own pockets.
Now, a gift from the Lee Foundation to NUS’ Surgical Outreach for Underprivileged Localities (SOUL) Project will enable them to increase the scope and reach of their medical missions, thus giving rise to the Lee Kong Chian Programme for Surgical Outreach & Education.
Says Dr Lee Chuen Neng, Head, Department of Surgery, who played a critical role in garnering the support of the Foundation, “We are privileged in Singapore to have access to world-class medical facilities but other places are not that fortunate. We want to help the less privileged. We want to share our skills with doctors in the region and multiply the benefit of good healthcare. At the same time, we want to expose our students to the world outside of Singapore and develop the spirit of volunteerism and compassion in the next generation of doctors.”
The entire surgical cluster takes part in the SOUL Project. Groups of 8 to 10 medical practitioners – senior surgeons, senior residents, medical officers, students and nurses – head to underprivileged areas to treat patients and teach local doctors. Thanks to the support of the Foundation, they hope to undertake about four such trips a year, up from the usual two. The doctors will continue to pay their airfare as they always have, but some of the other expenses of such trips, such as carrying portable equipment, the cost of consumables and other expenses will be taken care of by the gift. The trips are always undertaken on invitation and the NUS team works closely with local medical practitioners.
Dr Lim, who, for the last 11 years, has been visiting Myanmar to treat patients with facial injuries, says, “It’s about generational change; it’s about shaping the next generation of doctors and their worldview; it’s also about elevating how Singapore citizens look at society and how they can contribute.”
The SOUL Project is as much about treating patients in underdeveloped areas as it is about sharing expertise with local doctors. “You know the saying about teaching a man to fish…,” says Dr Lim, who travels to Yangon, Mandalay and Thunggi in Myanmar. “You see the look in the eyes of these doctors when they see the solution to what had seemed like an impossible problem. It is a moment of revelation. You are excited by their excitement. It is magical.”
The surgery is always carried out by senior doctors, but the medical students are thrown into situations that are a far cry from what they are used to in Singapore. Some patients travel for two days to see the medical team while surgeries sometimes have to be carried out on basic tables in tents set up in the field. Once Dr Lim had to use a Black & Decker drill instead of a medical drill. “It can be challenging and you have to improvise,” says Dr Lim, “and it’s good for the students to see that. This is medicine pared down to basics but it is effective. The stress of the situation is good for students. It actually changes how they approach life. The experience makes them better doctors and people.”
It is enormously gratifying, says Dr Tang, who travels to the interiors of the Philippines to carry out thyroid and hernia surgery, among other procedures. “In our society we take a lot of things for granted but during these trips, students come face-to-face with the life-changing power of surgery. In Singapore, a hernia operation is a 30-minute procedure that is easily accessible but in the Philippines, the patient may be travelling for two days just to get medical attention. A lump that can be easily removed here may be the cause of a man’s ostracisation in a village. Your skill as a surgeon can really improve that person’s quality of life. In our day to day life, sometimes we lose sight of that.”
Some medical students are so fired up by these experiences, they set up additional medical missions with their professors. “By changing the students’ view of the world, society moves to a different track,” says Dr Lim.
“We live in a global world,” says Dr Lee, “and we cannot see things in isolation. As doctors, it is our duty to heal people regardless of nationality. And private support such as this enables us to be independent and apolitical.”
Apart from the learning experience all-round, there is something else one gains from these trips, says Dr Lee, and that is “goodwill”. “It is invisible but its impact is enormous.”
If you wish to support the SOUL Project or would like to know more, please contact Lilian Quek firstname.lastname@example.org
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