Dr Kennedy Ng thought that going to university would give him all the answers. Instead, it left him with a burning question - what makes a good healthcare professional?
The 2016 valedictorian of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) asserts that it was not about having good grades, or never having made a mistake.
“Instead, the top qualities that make a good healthcare professional are humility and compassion,” Kennedy says.
“I learnt humility after my first application to medicine was rejected,” he recalls. “It was a heavy blow - I started questioning my own abilities and character, thinking I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor.”
It prompted Kennedy to reflect deeply on the qualities and skills that a healthcare professional should have. “I realised I was lacking, and then sought avenues to develop these qualities,” he says.
Eventually, Kennedy applied again, and was accepted into NUS Medicine.
“Thus I entered medical school with a deep appreciation for the privilege and responsibility that I had been entrusted with,” he says. “More importantly, I learned to have the courage to face my failures.”
During his time as a student in NUS, Kennedy fell in love with the school’s strong community spirit. “We are often reminded of the privilege we have to study medicine and encouraged to give back to the community,” he explains.
He adds, “The faculty is very supportive of student-led programmes - I daresay that almost every medical student has been a part of some community service programme.”
That sense of community spirit was something Kennedy channelled into one of his proudest achievements. Alongside his friend Angeline Tey, he co-founded a student-initiated inter-professional home care programme as a fourth-year student in 2014.
“It’s called the Tri-Generational Homecare @ North West programme,” Kennedy says. He explains that the programme was necessary as Singapore’s ageing population is more prone to chronic diseases and faces supplementary problems such as insufficient finances and poor social support.
A carnival was held on TriGen Day, where secondary school students, NUS healthcare students and the elderly came together to bond and have fun.
Working in partnership with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s Ageing-in-Place Programme and the North West Community Development Council, the project provides long-term holistic care to the elderly.
Kennedy adds, “For the elderly with good social support, they’ll usually have loved ones who act as their advocates to bring different resources together for their well-being.”
But not everyone has such a robust support system. “Unfortunately, there are many vulnerable elderly who live alone and are illiterate - two formidable barriers preventing their access to healthcare resources,” he says.
The Tri-Generational HomeCare @ North West project brings university and secondary school students together to act as a “care team” for the elderly.
Each care team pays the elderly resident fortnightly home visits over the course of six months.
“The students play the roles of the elderly’s loved ones,” Kennedy says. In doing so, they not only help the elderly meet their healthcare needs, they also offer them support that goes beyond what medical treatment alone can offer.
He sees the Tri-Generational HomeCare @ North West programme as a way to give back to those who have raised and mentored today’s generation. Today, three years after Kennedy graduated from NUS, the programme continues to be run by a team of students, including his juniors.
As part of the TriGen initiative, Kennedy (front left) conducted home visits to elderly patients with team leaders and students.
An appreciation for mentorship was something Kennedy picked up during his time at NUS.
He also found that his seniors were always eager to guide their juniors through their journeys. Kennedy recalls how, as a junior, he flourished under his seniors’ guidance, “In school, almost every freshman joins the NUS Students’ Union’s annual signature Freshman Orientation event called Rag & Flag.”
As a bright-eyed and bushy tailed freshman then, Kennedy saw that many seniors made an effort to attend the orientation event, in order to welcome their juniors.
“Almost all seniors will then find a junior to informally mentor. They’ll even pass down their study materials,” he says.
Along with his friends, Kennedy (front row, third from right) helped to organise an examination preparedness course for their juniors.
Kennedy also recalls being part of a ‘Silent Mentor’ appreciation ceremony at school, where students make time to pay their respects to the deceased who have donated their bodies for their anatomy lessons.
The experience left a deep mark on Kennedy.
“It taught me what it means to respect a fellow human being. When I became a doctor and encountered patients, that experience reminded me to respect the dignity of every human being.”
These experiences negated the stereotype that one must simply be smart to pursue medicine. Instead, Kennedy saw that one must have compassion, too.
“In my opinion, having a heart for people is what matters more,” Kennedy asserts.
This mantra was something Kennedy picked up under the tutelage of NUS’ Professor of Surgery Low Cheng Hock.
“I actually had the privilege of meeting him just before I applied to medical school a second time,” Kennedy recalls. “I was feeling very discouraged, but he encouraged me and that gave me the strength and confidence to work through the second admission process.”
During his time as Prof Low’s student, Kennedy often saw his professor go the extra mile to help others. Prof Low taught him that empathy was the real measure of a doctor, and inspired him to be a better healthcare professional.
In addition, he was inspired by Associate Professor Erle Lim who taught him Clinical Medicine and Neurology in his first year, and Dr Perry Lau who was his Paediatrics Medicine lecturer.
“Prof Lim showed us that being observant at the bedside can reveal many clues that lead to a patient’s diagnosis. And as I found it challenging to approach children, I learnt a lot from Dr Lau on how to use play to engage the child and put them at ease so I can examine them.”
Today, Kennedy wears humility and compassion on his sleeve, as a chief resident for Internal Medicine at SingHealth.
As a Medical Oncology Senior Resident, he spends most of his time caring for patients with cancer.
“I have been given the privilege to walk my patients through a difficult part of their lives, to guide them in fulfilling what is important to them, and to add days to their lives,” Kennedy says.
Recently, Kennedy and his staff helped a female patient diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer marry her fiancé.
“Her condition deteriorated despite our best efforts to treat her,” Kennedy says sadly. Wanting to fulfil his patient’s dying wish of marrying her fiancé, Kennedy scrambled to help facilitate their marriage process.
He recalls, “It was a simple wedding, witnessed by nurses, doctors and the couple’s family members. Yet it was touching to see the young couple celebrate their love.”
The patient passed away a week later.
“This is but one of the many patients that I encounter on a daily basis,” Kennedy says.
And while watching his patients deteriorate breaks his heart, being able to walk with them through such difficult journeys in their lives makes the hard work worth it.
“As a doctor, you will encounter people from all walks of life,” Kennedy says. “Being empathetic helps you connect with, and provide better care for your patients. A key ingredient is having a heart for people.”
He adds, “The work can be quite emotionally and physically demanding. Knowing that you are here to serve others provides the strength and motivation to keep going on.”
The humbling journey Kennedy has experienced so far has also given him an answer to the question that keeps him up at night.
He explains, “A good healthcare professional is one who never rests on his laurels. We must embark on the journey of our lives and keep going in service of our patients.”