Rising above adversity: Pharmacy graduate finds renewed purpose in serving patients with empathy

Matthew Tan’s six-year undergraduate journey is marked with grit and resilience, having fought and won the battle against cancer twice in the midst of his studies. Despite adversity, he has risen above the storm to use his experiences as learning opportunities. As he starts his next chapter as a pharmacist after receiving a Bachelor of Science (Pharmacy) degree with Honours (Distinction), his own personal journey as a patient has empowered him to empathise and relate better with his patients.

Matthew matriculated as an NUS student in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Pharmacy in 2017. However, his studies were disrupted in 2018 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma – a type of blood cancer that affects the immune system – during the second semester of his first year of studies. After a six-month long medical leave, he resumed undergraduate studies in 2019. This was interrupted a second time when he had to take another year-long medical leave when he suffered a relapse. He resumed his studies as a sophomore at the start of the next academic year in August 2020.

Going beyond the letter grade

The cancer diagnosis changed how Matthew viewed the role of academics in his life.

“Being a typical student, I tried my best in achieving stellar grades in my freshman year,” said Matthew. Comparison with peers and the desire to keep up led to sacrificed sleep for late-night studying.

“It was only after my diagnosis of lymphoma in 2018 that I took a step back and reflected on the life I lived before my diagnosis. How meaningless it was to get caught up in this rat race of achieving academic excellence when it can be so easily robbed at the expense of my health,” shared Matthew.  

With this immense recognition that there was more to life than the paper chase, Matthew no longer felt the need to be wholly focused on grades but took each module as a learning opportunity. “It felt very liberating to learn without imposing expectations on myself to strive for the top percentile. I did not look for unrestricted electives to intentionally pull up my overall academic performance. Instead, I took modules that I was interested in and could further my knowledge in becoming a more patient-centric pharmacist in time to come.”

Learning as a patient

While being treated as a patient, Matthew had the opportunity to learn more about oncology, the study of cancer. He was curious about the medications he was taking and how they helped in his recovery. Upon finding out that Matthew was a Pharmacy student, the nurses, pharmacists and doctors treating him took the time, where possible, to share information about his treatment while he was lucid.

“I also had multiple opportunities to learn how medication dispensing counselling was performed. As the ward pharmacist counselled me on the dosing regimen of each medication – such as the frequency of administration, and steps to take if I missed a dose – and showed me empathy throughout the process, I made a mental note to adopt the counselling techniques used,” said Matthew.

He was able to put his observations to practice as a Year 2 student during an NUS Pharmacy module when he was tasked to perform dispensing counselling using a mock prescription. After the assessment, he received feedback from the examiner that it was unexpected for a student to counsel so empathetically and naturally.

This comment was a tremendous encouragement to Matthew. “It gave significance to my experience that I had thought was something to be ashamed about. It was also a reason to cement my career as a pharmacist with an attitude to take every opportunity as a learning experience, whether good or bad.”

The support of the Pharmacy family

Matthew is greatly appreciative of how Associate Professor Ho Han Kiat and Dr Chng Hui Ting from NUS Pharmacy would regularly check in with him when he was away on leave of absence to find out how he was doing. He was also inspired by his lecturers Professor Eric Chan, Associate Professor Doreen Tan, and Dr Chng who made efforts to engage students, despite the limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic, so students could learn better.

Beyond the academic faculty, Matthew also found professional guidance through the Inspiring Students in Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science through Interaction and Enrichment (InSPIRxE) mentorship programme, a programme organised by the NUS Pharmaceutical Society Academic Committee and NUS Pharmacy Alumni Group. His mentors, Ms Chung Wing Lam and Ms Cheryl Lim, current pharmacists and NUS alumni, provided listening ears and advice which helped him navigate his journey as a pharmacist to be.

Finding purpose amidst change

A significant source of strength for Matthew in his journey was his religious faith. He also forged deep friendships within the NUS Catholic Students’ Society which provided immense support. “Meeting with like-minded individuals who journey together as a community really pulled me through the rough patches in university and gave me perspectives on what I should treasure above all else.”

Matthew is currently a pre-registration pharmacist with the National University Hospital. He aspires to become an oncologist specialist pharmacist, and possibly venture into educating the next generation of pharmacists. Prior to this, on the advice of his lecturers with experience treating cancer patients, he aims to gain exposure to treating patients with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Such conditions affect patients over a longer period and could pose complications to cancer treatment.

“It helps to have some milestones in place to work towards, but if there is one thing I learn from my cancer experience, it is to embrace change. Sometimes life is not going to be so smooth-sailing and there may be circumstances that will require me to pivot and realign my goals,” said Matthew.

Reflecting on his undergraduate journey, Matthew has these words of encouragement for students: “Life is not a rat race, but a journey of self-discovery to understand what it means to live as humans. Seize every opportunity as your chance to gain valuable experience, whether it may end in success or failure. Trust that this will eventually pay dividends in the future, even if you don’t understand its significance at present.”

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!