Celebrating the NUS Medicine journey: Support and bonds that endure

Doctors have healing hands that not only treat ailments but also bring comfort, relief, and hope to their patients. But the road to becoming a doctor can be long and bumpy.

For two fresh graduates of the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine), the rigorous medical training was made easier through support from the school and those around them.

Aqilah Faaiqah: Caring for her mother inspired interest in palliative care

Armed with a diploma in Biomedical Science from Republic Polytechnic, Aqilah Faaiqah Binte Haji Shamsuri knew that she loved two things: science and helping people. But it was her experience with compassionate medical professionals who cared for her cancer-stricken mother during her final year in polytechnic that inspired her to be a doctor.

Aqilah’s medical school journey was far from easy. In her fourth year, she received devastating news – her mother’s cancer had relapsed. Aqilah had to juggle studies while being her mother’s sole caregiver. During the over 100 days that her mother spent in the hospital, she stayed over five days a week, going home only to shower and change.

This was in the midst of her finals, where she had to study at her mother’s bedside. While preparing for one particular clinical exam, Aqilah felt anxious. “I did not feel prepared. I was not confident,” she said. Before she left the ward to sit for the exam, her mother wrapped her hands around Aqilah’s, looked her in the eyes, and said: “You got this.”

These words calmed her. To Aqilah’s surprise, one of the clinical cases she had managed to practise with her partner, was tested during the exam. She felt affirmed.

NUS Medicine was also “very supportive and allowed me to change postings to the hospital my mother was at because they knew I had to be there with her”, she added. Scholarships from the University meant that she did not have to worry about school fees too, especially since money was tight during her mother’s treatment period.

After pulling through that academic year, she decided to take a gap year to care for her mother and herself. Sadly, her mother passed away that same year. A grief-stricken Aqilah found solace in baking. What began as a coping mechanism quickly turned into a passion.

She received rave reviews for her sourdough bread. With the encouragement of her friends and family, she started a baking business as a form of tribute to her mother. She named her enterprise “Ibu Roti” – the name means yeast in Malay, but “ibu” was also what she called her mother. “I found it therapeutic to bake bread because it reminded me of the moments I spent with my mum,” she said.

The time spent with her mother by her bedside opened Aqilah’s eyes to an aspect of medicine that is often overlooked – palliative care. She saw how the palliative care team went beyond their call of duty to support her mother in her final days.

“This is the type of doctor I want to be – to treat patients and really get to know them beyond their medical condition,” she said.

To aspiring doctors, Aqilah has these words of encouragement: “Medicine is a long journey. You need to know your purpose in pursuing it in the first place – as long as this is clear, no matter how hard the journey gets, you can always come back to it.”

Aqilah received her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree from NUS on 8 July 2023.

Claire Tan: Learning through serving

It was a passion for people, coupled with her inclination towards the sciences, that motivated Claire Tan to study medicine. “Medicine allowed me to study what I like, and at the same time, see a purpose in what I was studying as I help others,” she said.

At NUS, she also put her love for helping others into action. As the Project Director of Project iRemember – a local community health project initiated by NUS Medicine students – she helped to raise awareness on geriatric mental health issues and dementia. These are causes close to her heart as her grandmother suffers from dementia.

Together with agencies such as TOUCH Cluster Support and the Agency for Integrated Care, Claire and her team conducted health screenings and weekly activities, such as music and Zumba classes, for seniors who were at risk of social isolation.

Through these initiatives, she learnt how to lead a team and form sustainable partnerships with organisations. “At first, I was just chasing KPIs (key performance indicators), like how many people would. Then I realised that the bonds we formed were equally, if not more, valuable,” she noted.

Claire’s commitment to serving others also brought her to vulnerable groups at the other end of the age spectrum. Under the Neighbourhood Health Service Kids, another student-run initiative at NUS Medicine, she helped children from lower-income families who were at risk of developmental delays.

Although they could not interact much with the kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, they managed to organise Zoom webinars where paediatricians from National University Hospital taught parents of these children how to manage common childhood conditions.

Claire has also earned a number of academic accolades. She counts the Jane Prize in Paediatrics, which she won in 2022 for her research paper on a rare blood disorder in children, as the most memorable.

The prize is awarded to outstanding clinical papers on paediatric subjects based on a student’s own research. “I was hoping to shed light on the high mortality of the condition and improve the care of these children. The award was a bonus,” she said.

The global learning opportunities offered by NUS also enabled Claire to expand her horizons through a four-week elective in Wales, where she visited clinics and hospitals.

And Claire deeply cherishes the friends she made in NUS – both in her faculty and in King Edward VII Hall. “It was a memorable five years, but I am thankful for the good friends and clinical group mates that supported me and made things easier,” she said.

Claire received her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (with Honours) degree from NUS on 8 July 2023.

This story is part of NUS News’ coverage of Commencement 2023, which celebrates the achievements of our more than 14,700 graduates from the Class of 2023. For more on Commencement, read our stories and graduate profiles, check out the official Commencement website, or look up and tag #NUS2023 on our social media channels!