SINGAPORE - Fourteen Christmas carollers turned up at a children's cancer ward in 2005.
Only two could enter.
CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' student Calida Chua, then 13, was among the chosen ones.
To prevent germs spreading to the patients, she had to disinfect her hands and wear a face mask.
Expecting to see children wearing beanies, Miss Chua, now 19, recalled: "I was quite shocked to see how the kids had to cover every inch of themselves in gloves and gown. Only their eyes were visible."
As Miss Chua and a fellow churchgoer belted out classic refrains like Silent Night, her young audience beamed.
Miss Chua said: "When we left, they wanted to hug us. But it was not possible because no contact was allowed."
That experience set her on the path to study medicine at the National University of Singapore.
The undergrad, who received a SingHealth Medicine Scholarship, hopes to become a paediatric oncologist, a doctor who specialises in children's cancer.
More than 1,100 patients aged 15 years and younger were diagnosed with cancer between 1997 and 2005, said the Singapore Childhood Cancer Registry in its first report.
Their numbers are rising.
About half of all childhood cancers occurs in children below five years old. In many cases, the causes are unknown.
Common types of cancer include leukaemia, cancers of the brain and nervous system, and lymphomas, a Health Ministry spokesman said.
While the survival rate for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia - the most common form of cancer in Singapore - is very good (up to nine in 10 live), those with brain tumour and advanced-stage neuroblastoma have the lowest survival, said the Children's Cancer Foundation website.
But Miss Chua is unfazed.
"Besides working with children, you have to learn how to handle their families. Despite the stress, I believe that working hard with the team for every life we come across will trump everything else, including the hardships faced."
Thanks to her public service ambitions and sterling academic results, Miss Chua was among four undergrads who shared SingHealth's $500,000 scholarship grant.
All will serve a four-year bond on graduation.
The scholarship, now in its second year, is open to Singaporeans, permanent residents and foreign students who want to serve in public health care.
Another recipient, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School student Fong Sheng, 26, is studying ways to slow down ageing.
In 20 years, one-fifth of Singapore's population will be 65 or older.
So Mr Fong, who was among last year's NUS President's Honour Roll winners, hopes his research will impact the silver generation in years to come.
But he is quick to dispel hopes for immortality: "The research I'm doing is not about letting people live forever. Rather, it looks at how people can lead healthier lives in old age."
Childhood cancer cases
Over the last three decades, more young people below 15 years old have been stricken with cancer: 1983-1987 357
Source: Ministry of Health
This article was first published in The New Paper.