What do you do with the spleen in your hands when the lights go out during a surgery?
This was the exact scenario Dr Andrew Sayampanathan found himself in, when he worked as a medical student volunteer at a hospital in rural southern India during his undergraduate days.
In the darkness, he held the organ in his palms while a doctor pumped air manually into the patient’s lungs. Meanwhile, someone rushed outside to start a backup generator. Just five metres away in the same blackened operating theatre, a man was undergoing a hernia operation, attended to by the hospital’s one and only anesthesiology team.
“It was difficult and crowded. The hospital had no catered meal services and could not admit patients without relatives to accompany them. Patients needed to have a family member who could feed and care for them,” the 24-year-old alumnus from the National University of Singapore (NUS) recalled.
As he and his team went on their ward rounds, he soon discovered that these family members had spent the night sleeping on the hospital floor beside their sick kin. It was also a shock to see caregivers crawling out from underneath hospital cots because there was simply not enough space. With its limited resources, the practice of medicine was so different from that of a regular hospital. Despite that, the hospital would still waive fees for patients who could not afford to pay.
Most of us would have simply checked this off as community work and called it a day. But this was not so for Andrew, on whom the southern Indian experience left a deep impression. After returning to NUS, he was determined to make a difference to those who needed it most. Not simply as a doctor, but as a leader and innovator.
“I believe that people should train in the country where they desire to practise,” he explained. “For me, I have always wanted to practise medicine in Singapore, so NUS Medicine was the ideal place for me.”
Thus began his unconventional education in NUS. While other students pored over medical textbooks, Andrew took advantage of the flexibility that the NUS curriculum afforded him to attend non-medical activities and workshops offered by the university and other organisations. This even included a module run by A*STAR in biodesign as well as Aaron Maniam’s Leadership in a Complex World.
Was the rigorous medical coursework not enough? Not for someone who has taken public service to heart. Just as NUS, his alma mater, was founded on principles of community service, as a young doctor, Andrew knew he wanted to do even more.
He wanted to change the way we think and approach community healthcare.
“When you get people from various backgrounds to be aware of the same issue, they come up with totally different solutions. For example, during community neighbourhood health screenings, only three to five out of every 10 people answer the knock on their door and agree to undergo screening. Being medically trained, we will think of better quality services that can be provided to the community. Perhaps the solution would be to collaborate with behavioural scientists to develop a better approach to health screenings,” he said cheekily.
Effusive and eloquent, he enthused about how to change healthcare for the better by getting everyone involved.
As case studies, he cited the helpful abundance of music and art therapists at Shriner’s Hospital for Children-Boston in which he did a rotation during his posting with the Harvard Medical School. He also highlighted a new app that would notify members of the community trained in basic first aid and willing to aid in a medical emergency nearby.
“In addition to medical problems, there are social issues that must be tackled with a variety of skills. NUS is a place for people with different skills and knowledge backgrounds to collaborate and NUS Medicine provided us with a platform to start our own projects and champion our own causes.”
Flexible and dynamic, the school’s approach to moulding well-rounded medical professionals meant that its students could venture beyond their core studies to enrich themselves in other areas. At one point, Andrew was engaged in so many non-medical modules and cross-faculty projects that school counsellors became concerned. They wanted to know that he was still coping with his medical curriculum.
“It turned out to be a non-issue,” he said with a laugh. “After all, many students at NUS explore subjects outside their faculty. They just wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing before I progressed further.”
Far from failing, his extracurricular interests also bore fruit. Armed with leadership skills and his community service experience, Andrew and his NUS friends founded Constructing Care Collaboration (CCC) – an initiative to provide medical care for migrant workers.
“We also aimed to provide medical students an opportunity to volunteer in caring for migrant workers. Through this platform, we get to learn more about the various challenges, both social and medical, faced by migrant workers,” said Andrew.
He added: “For example, we see a lot of workplace accidents in the news but many of the health problems that plague migrant workers are actually non-traumatic and caused by living conditions in their quarters. Colds spread quickly when there are 20, 30 people sleeping in a room. Infections, for instance, spread fast when people stay in crowded rooms.”
Today, Andrew works as a doctor in the SingHealth cluster of hospitals but his passion for community service remains. When he finds the time, he would spend it with migrant workers, providing medical attention to those that society overlooks.
What motivates him to sacrifice his precious Sundays?
“Sometimes, the person who benefits most from community service is not the beneficiary, but the volunteer himself,” he replied modestly.