A big softie on the inside, Cheryl Lim shares how helping others who have trouble conceiving brings her joy.
A "molten lava cake" – that's what Cheryl Lim, an Embryologist at KKH likens herself to. She describes herself as someone who looks ordinary from the outside but has a soft heart and is passionate about helping others. This is particularly so when it comes to helping those who are unable to conceive naturally.
With Majors in both in both microbiology and biotechnology, she began her career in a laboratory as a technologist. Wanting to broaden her horizons shortly thereafter, Cheryl then decided to pursue a career that's more meaningful and could impact lives directly. She shares, "I'm so glad I took the leap of faith and joined KKH as an Embryologist. The job allows me to give people a sense of hope. It provides a sense of gratification that other jobs do not."
"The human egg is about the same size as a full stop from a pen's nib!"
Cheryl specialises in fertility preservation for oncology patients of pre-pubertal, pubertal and reproductive ages. Patients suffering from cancer usually have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. The agents used in these therapies are toxic and negatively impacts their fertility.
"Depending on the patient's age, the oncologist will recommend fertility preservation. This is so that in the event that the patient becomes infertile in the future, there is still the hope of them having a child," says Cheryl.
For adolescent patients, the clinic would speak to their parents, urging them to plan ahead for their child and consider fertility preservation. In the unfortunate event where a patient does succumb to the cancer, the reproductive tissues will be discarded.
Part of Cheryl's daily duties includes "babysitting" embryos. "With painstaking care and attention to the growing needs of the embryo, we do our utmost to ensure patients go home with the best chances of getting pregnant. We do so by managing various factors such as the number of days of culture, monitoring the growth of the embryo and observing how the cells divide and develop," she shares.
The process usually starts with egg collection, followed by incubation, insemination, fertilization and ends with embryo transfer and freezing. Cheryl says, "Many people do not know this but to the naked eye, the human egg is about the same size as a full stop from a pen's nib!"
Cheryl pays special attention to the embryos as part of her daily duties
Of dexterous hands and immense patience
With 14 years of experience and an MSc in Clinical Embryology under her belt, Cheryl is well versed in the many procedures put in place to properly care for the embryos. One important skill she acquired is the ability to scrutinize the embryos and select suitable ones for implantation in a woman's womb or frozen for future use.
Remembering her first few days at the laboratory, Cheryl shares, "I would say it is like completing an obstacle course! It took a lot of energy to remain focused. Multi-tasking remains a mainstay of the job as it involves meeting with patients, documenting information and also ensuring that the embryos are taken care of."
Today, Cheryl emphasises to her juniors about the importance of patient safety and why it's critical to stay calm in the face of challenges. "With practice, they pick up on various skills and gain competency", she says. On top of training her juniors, Cheryl's duties include running the laboratory with a team of meticulous colleagues and attending to administrative duties.
She recalls that her most memorable moments at work often include couples who conceive successfully. She smiles and says, "Several years ago, we helped a young cancer survivor conceive a son by transferring a frozen embryo which was retrieved from her harvested ovarian tissue. It was a heart-warming experience for the entire team."
On the flip side, breaking bad news to patients is also part and parcel of her job, as not all cases achieve successful outcomes. This requires lots of patience and empathy on her part. "I communicate the relevant facts and let them express their feelings of disappointment and grief. Where possible, I try to encourage them by discussing their future plans and what can still be accomplished," said Cheryl
So what skills does one need in order to this job well? "Good hand-eye coordination, dexterity of the hands and an overflowing amount of patience in handling a tiny form of life with your fingers!"
Outside of work, Cheryl always makes sure to spend time with her husband and toddler, and indulge in some of her favourite hobbies such as yoga, paddling, hiking, jogging and travelling. She particularly enjoys yoga and recalls practicing at least thrice a week. She laughs and says, "After having a child, things change! I only practice yoga once a week now." Ever the adventurous one, Cheryl's completed several hikes overseas, including Sabah (Malaysia), Lombok (Indonesia), Ladakh (India) and Yunnan (China)."
Cheryl challenges herself by practicing yoga during her free time