Anaesthesiologist learns life lessons caring for patients and teaching fellow doctors, and chooses to focus on the positive and authentic.

Senior Consultant A/Prof Tay Sook Muay has dedicated more than three decades of her career in anaesthesiology. She cares for patients who come to the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and other medical centres on SGH Campus for surgery. Her work covers pre-operation, when patients are evaluated and prepared to be in optimal condition to undergo the procedure, surgery in the operating theatre, as well as post-operation recovery in the wards or intensive care unit. 

“As a medical student, at 19, I initially wanted to do paediatrics and later on, even considered geriatrics. My perspective changed when I encountered young children with leukaemia, which was challenging to treat, sometimes with poor outcome. This made me feel so helpless. And I knew I wanted children of my own, so I couldn’t reconcile with this aspect of the work, where I couldn’t help these children afflicted with leukaemia. As for the geriatric patients, I enjoyed talking to them. I found their life stories so interesting. I was fluent in a few dialects, which made it easy to connect with them.”

“Later, I was posted to Neurosurgery in Tan Tock Seng Hospital. On one occasion, a patient deteriorated in the ward and had to be intubated. I struggled to manage the airway, and the anaesthesiologist was called to help. He came with his tools and medication and elegantly intubated the patient. I was wowed. To me, this anaesthesiologist was truly heroic and did lifesaving work. I requested for an Anaesthesiology posting and never looked back.” 

Another aspect of anaesthesiology that appeals greatly to Prof Tay is the teamwork and collegiality. She works closely with surgeons across various specialties, not only in the operating theatre but also in the peri-operative evaluation stage. Throughout her career, there were instances where she flagged patients who have other medical conditions that may complicate their surgery. “The surgeon and the anaesthesiologist work together in the theatre. It’s crucial to clarify any issue in advance, so that everyone is prepared, in order to achieve the best outcome for the patient. So we must make collegiality come alive, not shy away from calling our fellow doctors to discuss and clarify, even if the issue is caught at the last minute.”

“Our department is also very unique in that we emphasize teambuilding. When I was a medical officer, we had a lot of staff gatherings. Even today, when we have retreats, colleagues bring their families. This allows us to get to know each other’s spouse and children, putting faces to the names we often encounter. We also cherish moments of family time. It’s not uncommon for us to arrive home after the children are already asleep.” 

“Another key strength in our department is the mutual professional help that we readily give to support each other. Occasionally, I encounter patients who pose particular challenges during intubation, such as those who have a tumour in the airway or cancer in the jaw. In such cases, I reach out to colleagues who are airway experts for added support to secure and protect the airway with minimal trauma to patients. It’s this kind of collegiality, of professional support, that I really enjoy. And I do my utmost to pay it forward by giving professional help to others.”

Prof Tay is also known to be very caring towards her colleagues. “It’s natural, because I receive a lot of care, affirmation and encouragement from them. I delight in who they are – I see their strengths and each of them bring something to contribute to the very interesting mosaic of interaction in the department.”

Her acts of care towards her colleagues earned her a nomination for the SGH Genuine Care Award from Dr Chong Shin Yuet, Senior Consultant in the Department of Anaesthesiology. 

Dr Chong was at home on medical leave, with sciatica – severe pain caused by prolapsed lumbar intervertebral disc.

“I had to lie in bed as walking or sitting was just too painful. I was completely taken by surprise when Sook Muay turned up at my door one night because she didn’t tell me she was coming. She bore a beautiful bouquet of flowers and an even more beautiful smile, and said she was in the neighbourhood to run some errands, something about adopting a rescued dog.” 

“She wanted to teach my husband to massage my feet, so that it would help distract me and take my mind off the pain in my back. But he wasn’t of much help, so she just sat down on my bed and started massaging my feet. That was how it happened – it was so funny and heartwarming at the same time. I was very touched.”

“When I got better, I decided to nominate her for the Genuine Care award. Wouldn't you nominate your colleague if she surprises you with such a lovely gesture? I just thought it was really nice of her. I also wanted her to be recognised for her kindness over the years. She always has a kind word for everyone.”

“One of the reasons I chose to stay in SGH all these years is because I know my colleagues will have my back if I run into any trouble in my theatre.  It would be harder in private practice because I might not know the anaesthetist next door, or he might not be able to leave his patient to help me. That’s the wonderful thing about working in SGH.”

For many fellow doctors, Prof Tay is also known as an educator. She was their Dean in SGH when they were in the NUS medical school. As energetic as ever, she is now running master classes for senior doctors and heads of departments, so that they can be role models to their juniors in effective communication, focusing on empathetic and compassionate engagement. 

To those who know her, she’s the ideal person to conduct such a class because she genuinely cares for people.

Having seen her share of patients who suffer, or die untimely deaths, Prof Tay is grateful for each day. “Every day when I wake up, I am thankful for this new day. I have a choice, so I choose joy. I choose positive.”