By Stephanie Jade Arlindita

SingHealth’s Group Director of Allied Health had once almost quit studying physiotherapy. But it all changed when one young patient sparked in her a passion that has been burning since.

Always active and on the move, the energetic Prof Celia Tan (leftmost in picture) is the definition of jack of all trades. The 57-year-old has run marathons, led mission trips, cycled through the Thai countryside and taught herself the piano in addition to her busy job.  But as an accomplished physiotherapist with various patents, awards and major leadership experiences under her belt, she’s definitely no master of none.

“Before we start, let me show you some pictures from my trek last week,” said Prof Tan. She whipped up her phone, scrolled through photos in the gallery and stopped at a picture of a group of people with Mount Everest in the background. “It’s my third time there.”

“My first trip there was when I was 23. I’m glad to report that yes, I can still do it at this age! Although when I was younger, I could cover the trails much faster,” she said with a laugh. “I had the help of a porter then, but in my second trip, I was able to carry my stuff on my own.”

Q: You must have been quite sporty since young!
My dad was a very active school teacher, so I’ve learnt to love sports since young. In secondary school, I came down with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis which made my joints really stiff and painful. The only sport the doctors allowed me to do was swimming, so I put all my energy and effort into it.

I was even in the same school team as Ang Peng Siong! But we’re definitely not in the same league.

Q: What sort of adventures did you have in university?
I went to New Zealand to do my degree at the Auckland University of Technology. During term breaks, when most international students flew home to their families, I chose to explore the country instead, visiting my classmates from different parts of the country.

I took down their addresses and mapped out the bus routes from one town to another. This was before SMS or Skype, so I couldn’t ask them for directions if I got lost.

But it was very fun! I got to stay in big cowboy-style ranches, milk cows, ride horses, or just experience living in a different city. One term break, a friend asked me to cycle up to a farm 55 miles up north of Auckland. I’m still in touch with the owner of the farm, Auntie Dawn, a teacher who considered me her adopted daughter.

Q: What made you go into physiotherapy?
After finishing my ‘A’ levels, I wanted to get a science degree. But I saw an advertisement for a Colombo Plan Scholarship (now Public Service Commission Scholarship) to study physiotherapy in New Zealand. I was told that physiotherapy had something to do with sports, so I was immediately interested! I signed up and got the scholarship.

When I started my studies, I realised that it was not just about sports. This threw me off quite a bit and I was contemplating to quit and return home to Singapore. But then came the turning point.

In my second year, I had to do a four-week clinical attachment at a childcare centre for kids with cerebral palsy. I was assigned to a child who was a quadriplegic – he couldn’t move his arms or legs, and he couldn’t speak.

With so many limitations, I felt like there was nothing much I could do for him other than putting his shoes on his feet, helping him into a chair or moving him in bed.

My supervisor asked me, “Aren’t you going to do anything more?” I could tell that she was really disappointed in me, and I was almost sure that I was going to fail the module because I wasn’t making any progress with my patient.

One day, my supervisor told me that the young boy had asked which country I was from. I was so surprised! I wondered how he could have asked this when he couldn’t speak. My supervisor said, “Well, you never asked.” It turned out that the boy could use a communication board.

With it, I could find out from him what he could or couldn’t do, and started involving him in his daily therapy sessions. I learnt what a bright mind the boy had. I started seeing improvements in his physical functions. By the end of that week, the young boy and my supervisor were smiling.

I passed my attachment with very good marks, and the experience encouraged me a lot for the rest of my studies and in my profession as a physiotherapist.

Q: You have a busy job, and still you have time for your other passions. How do you do it?
I find the time and commit to it. Otherwise there’s always something else that becomes more important.

I also believe in doing it in small chunks. For example, I wanted to learn how to play the piano.  So every night, I spent 15 minutes practising. I knew that if I was disciplined enough to do it, I would make progress. It was slow, but now I can play a few tunes and ad lib a number of pop songs on the piano.

I’m also trying to improve my spoken Chinese to help me communicate with Chinese counterparts at work, so I started learning from my son’s former Chinese tutor. I see her only twice a month – which you may think is not much, but it does add up. Two years on, and now my colleagues have noticed that my Chinese has improved. I’ve even given a presentation in Chinese!

No matter how slow the progress is, you just have to commit to it. When you look back, you will be proud of the many things you’ve achieved.