By Stephanie Jade Arlindita
“2 minutes.” The text message from Dr Toh popped up on my phone. There was a bit of confusion over the venue of our interview. He arrived at Academia and introduced himself to me and my photographer. The small talk went into a chat about newsletters and his days as Editor for SMA News for 14 years before stepping down. It was time to start the interview proper, so I reminded him that it would be about his medical school days. “Oh my god!” he responded, with laughter.
So where did you study?
I did my preclinical years in the University of London, in the UK. I then finished my clinical years and graduated as a doctor from the University of Cambridge.
What were the most memorable moments you experienced during that time in England?
Wow, there’s a lot.... even including asking a girl out on a date and getting rejected! But I would say it was very memorable being in my 20s in a new city, a new country, discovering new experiences and encountering new people and a new culture in a country so rich in history and yet, edgy too.
I may be revealing my age here, but it was the golden era of Britpop. Artistes like the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, David Bowie, New Order, Madness and U2 were in their prime. The music scene, culture, trends, attitude and mindset of the society at that time were very exciting for me and lots of fun.
I felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to study there. In many ways the memories were very deeply entrenched. I guess it goes without saying for all 20 year olds at that period of their lives and education. Till now, I still have nostalgic and sentimental feelings towards England.
Another important part of university life were the deep friendships I made.
Are you still in touch with anyone from outside Singapore from those medical school days?
Oh definitely! For example, I remain very close friends with [Professor] Anthony Chan, [Director of the Sir YK Pao Cancer Centre at Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong]. We first became friends because we stayed in the same hostel in London.
Our relationship is also a professional one. We regularly meet for work and at conferences. Anthony wanted to be a surgeon and I wanted to be an obstetrician. Amazing that both of us are now medical oncologists. Life is really full of surprises.
Another close friend of mine is anaesthetist [Associate Professor] Eugene Liu Hern Choon [current CEO of the National University Health System]. We were both in England at the same time but he went to a different medical school. I’ve known him since we were seven years old and we have remained firm friends since. We once went tobogganing during winter on Hampstead Heath sitting on a frying pan…..*facepalm*
But it’s not so easy to keep in touch…
In those days there was no internet or mobile phones. I spent my Sunday nights writing letters to my loved ones and friends, then licking stamps for the envelope and putting them in the mail box. There were aerograms then too! Then one week later, the recipients in Singapore would receive my letters and it would take another week for me to receive their replies.
Now it’s so easy to communicate and keep in touch! Young people need to realise that communication back then was not as easy as nowadays with instant messaging via Whatsapp, FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram, emails…
What hobbies did you pick up in medical school?
I took up rowing in university and I fell in love with it. I love being on the water, and rowing with the sun only just rising and the mist rolling over the water was magical. In London, we rowed mainly in the afternoons after classes on the Thames.
We had to be ready before 6 in the morning for rowing training, so it meant I couldn’t keep late nights and had to be very disciplined with time. It also taught me teamwork, discipline and stamina from a young age. All those hours of rowing practice helped me in my medical career, especially the grit, pain and endurance (laughs).
I still row now in Singapore as a sport. I am in the same rowing club (EASTER Rowing Club) as my professional collaborator, Prof Salvatore Albani [Director of the SingHealth Translational Immunology and Inflammation Centre], who used to row competitively in Italy as a young man. It’s such a fun coincidence. We both love immunology and we both love rowing.
Our publication is called “Joy at Work”, so I have to ask you this – what brings you joy at work?
I do enjoy the multi-faceted, multitasking, multidimensional work life: From caring for patients, which brings me a lot of fulfillment, to teaching medical students, to doing research. It is meaningful to be a member of the healing profession, to be generating new knowledge and ideas, engaging medical students and being of value to the organisation and the academic enterprise. It can be pretty hectic still!
Teaching and research are exceptional opportunities you get to do in the public academic healthcare system. Being in an academic medical culture is an influence that came early to me through my father and my medical school mentors in the UK.
When you’re stressed at work, what do you do?
I’m a coffee person. It’s great that the SGH Campus is surrounded by some of Singapore’s best cafés – Highlander, Stranger’s Reunion, Kith Café, Nylon, Forty Hands… very hipster ones (laughs).
I like to go to a nearby coffee shop with colleagues and collaborators when time allows to brainstorm on research or to solve work-related issues or just to unwind. Looking after cancer patients can take a toll and international studies have shown that oncologists are more vulnerable to burnout compared to other medical specialties.
You said that you wanted to be an obstetrician. How did you end up being an oncologist – and a pretty successful one at that?
I was interested in obstetrics because I felt that I enjoyed the technical aspects of surgery and I loved the happy moments in labour ward – the birth of a healthy baby is always such a joyful moment for the mother, father and family members. When I was a medical student doing obstetrics and gynaecology at the Rosie Maternity Hospital, the obstetricians there were very academic, and I was fascinated by the immunology of pregnancy.
But I didn’t do obstetrics in the end: When I came back to Singapore, there were no house jobs available in obstetrics. I guess I was destined to go into medical oncology!