Out of personal misfortune came hope for hundreds of kids suffering from cancer.
Jennifer Yeo (’81), living true to the saying ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, started envisaging the Viva Foundation for Children with Cancer from beside her son’s sickbed. Her son, Frederick, then 10 years old, was undergoing bone marrow transplant at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the United States.
Ms Yeo, an alumna of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Law, says, “My son got better but I knew that would not be the case for many others. Those parents would suffer a lot more than I did and I wanted to help. It was also my thanksgiving to God for His mercy.”
Seven years later, the Viva Foundation, which was established in 2006, is offering hope to many young cancer patients. Through its partnerships with NUS, the National University Hospital (NUH) and St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Viva aims to bring St Jude’s 94 percent cure rate for childhood leukaemia to Singapore and the region. The estimated cure rate in Singapore averages 80 percent while in the region, it is 5 to 55 percent.
Viva’s focus is on developing the hard science that will improve the survival rate, says Ms Yeo, who is Director of Viva Foundation. “Ultimately it is the science that will save a child’s life. You need the latest and most effective treatment methods, medication and intense nursing. We support translational research – to speed up the rate at which discoveries go from the lab to the patient – and the development of infrastructure which will enhance a child’s chance of survival.”
NUS plays a critical role in this endeavour, says Ms Yeo. “We cannot do it without NUS as that is where the learning and expertise are concentrated. They have the international network and a track record of dedication to research, especially translational research. And even as we are working towards a sea change, the University is training new generations of doctors and nurses. Viva and NUS make natural partners as we complement each other and champion this cause together. In fact, I would say that we are volunteers who are helping the University do good.”
Cancer research is one of the University’s flagship research programmes and in 2009, the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine established the Viva-Goh Foundation Professorship in Paediatric Oncology and embarked on four research programmes for Bone Marrow Transplant, Childhood Leukaemia, Bone Cancer and After Completion Therapy supported by a S$12 million gift from the Goh Foundation. The Viva-University Children’s Cancer Centre, housed at NUH, is a one-stop cancer centre for children. Viva Foundation will soon be expanding its facilities and adding a 5,000sq ft regional diagnostic lab thanks to Far East Organisation, which has gifted them a space at Novena. They will be sharing this space with Children’s Cancer Foundation, which will be setting up a school for cancer patients there, and the Singapore Cord Blood Bank.
“People’s lives depend on what we do,” says Ms Yeo. “Someone out there is depending on medical advances to get well and even though I may not know them I feel this tremendous sense of urgency. I never want to forget the pain I felt when my child was suffering as I may then get complacent.”
Ms Yeo, who was once told that she “talks like a fanatic” about paediatric cancer, knows too well the difference a stranger can make to one’s life. “I always remember that a stranger helped to save my son’s life. The person was a bone marrow donor at the bone marrow registry of the Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan, which was set up by a Buddhist nun. I often wonder that a stranger would go through all the pain and medical risk associated with bone marrow donation and expect nothing in return – that is special.” The identities of donors are kept strictly confidential.
In talking about making a difference, she says, “When fundraising, I meet people who feel that this is the government’s job. But the whole idea of private initiative is to make a difference now and not wait for someone to do it later. St Jude’s is so good at what they do because they are the second largest healthcare charity in the US and they have an army of volunteers. There are so many needs in society and budgets have to be apportioned. In oncology, time is of the essence. We cannot wait, so we have to start first; do what we can. In fact, there is urgency on two levels – firstly, a lot of people need help and they can’t wait; on another level, we, too, have a limited lifespan. Whatever good we want to do we have a limited time to do as much as possible. And as I tell donors, you don’t have to be a doctor to save lives.”
Ms Yeo, who is Chairman of law firm Yeo-Leong & Peh LLC, credits NUS for having taught her well and giving her a solid foundation for building a successful career. “The University opened my mind. I attended summer school in Sophia University in Tokyo on a Japan Airlines Scholarship. I went on tour to the UK with the NUS choir as their pianist. I took part in the Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition at Washington with fellow student Davinder Singh. I met people from around the world.” Davinder Singh is now Chief Executive Officer of Drew & Napier and a member of the NUS Board of Trustees.
Thirty years after she graduated, Ms Yeo’s relationship with her alma mater continues – as a partner in a shared cause. She says, “The measure of a university is in its alumni – in how they contribute to the community and make a difference because they are there. If you wish to do good, have faith and look out for likeminded people who support your cause and will journey with you.”
For more information on making a gift to NUS, please contact Ms Ho Yuen Kwan at (+65) 6516 5755 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.