Watching what his doctor father did on a mission trip helped Dr Ervin Sethi, alumnus from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS), decide what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Ervin, now a houseman at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), was just eight years old when his father took him on a trip to Chiang Mai.
“That first trip was when I realised I want to do what my father was doing. With every patient he saw, I could see how grateful they were for his help. Even simple words of reassurance brought so much relief to them and I felt that that was something I want to do as well.”
“Being exposed to what a doctor does from a young age really left a deep impression on me,” he revealed.
They would run a makeshift clinic out of the back of a van and travel to different villages to provide medical services to villagers who did not have access to these.
Of the many patients Ervin and his father saw, a polio-stricken boy left the biggest impression. The boy could not walk and had to move around by dragging his body across the ground, causing the skin of his legs to tear and bleed.
When they were unable to treat the boy’s condition, Ervin donated his last pair of clean socks to the boy so it could offer him some protection.
He also remembers seeing villagers who had cancer and huge tumours growing on them. “Many of them don’t have any medical help and they don’t know that they have to seek help for their condition. By the time we saw them, they had 10, 20kg tumors growing out of the stomach or the side of the face. As a kid, it was quite traumatising,” Ervin explained.
But the experience of community work at such a young age has stuck with him. During his years at NUS, Ervin participated in projects such as Project Naamjai, a yearly medical mission trip where participants travel to a remote village in Chiang Mai to run clinics for the local community.
Even now, he does not allow his busy schedule as a doctor to hamper his endeavours at community work. He uses the weekends and his annual leave to make time for mission trips and community projects.
Astonishingly, though, he has managed to find the time for his sporting pursuits: He plays handball for Team Singapore and has represented NUS in swimming and water polo.
“It gives me a chance to share my experience as a medical student. Many people think medical students are nerds or bookworms and that’s not true,” the 24-year-old laughed.
However, juggling sports and studies proved to be tricky, but it was a choice he has no regrets about despite the sacrifices he has had to make.
The academic staff at NUS were also understanding and supportive, allowing him the flexibility to move his exams based on his schedule or accommodating his absence from school when he participated in overseas competitions.
“My sports officer was also one of the best people I met in NUS. She was really concerned if I was coping well in school, whether I was missing school too much for my competitions and if I had enough time to catch up on my work,” he added.
According to Ervin, sports added a different dimension to his life by letting him interact with people outside of medical school. Also, he felt that there was more to life than studying.
Now, though, as he undergoes his housemanship at the surgical department of SGH, his efforts are focused on the welfare of his patients.
Despite the long hours, which can range from 13 to 24 hours, depending on the surgery and the hectic environment, Ervin enjoys his job. And it is a responsibility that he does not take lightly.
He said: “I am definitely enjoying my housemanship experience so far. Every day is a new challenge and a learning experience, and I look forward to that. As a doctor, even the smallest action can go a long way in the care of our patients and we have to be on our toes at all times.”
On that note, he also revealed his intention to continue his sporting commitment and adds that he goes for trainings and competitions when time permits.
“The adrenaline rush when playing sports is what keeps me going and I think I will continue to pursue it for as long as my body allows me to,” he says.
“As a doctor, we are drained mentally and physically every day, and we just want to crash on our bed after work. But, this passion for sports is what keeps me going even on the most tiring of days,” he said.