Heart surgeon says SARS saved his life

Picture on above, right: Dr Tan with his wife Dr Mary Yang and daughter Philicia.

SINGAPORE - Heart surgeon Tan Yong Seng says Sars saved his life. Back in 2003, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) struck Singapore, the medium-framed Dr Tan was an overweight 90kg and would pant after climbing a short flight of stairs.

But the outbreak of Sars and the death of surgeon Alexandre Chao due to the flu-like illness made him think twice about his health.

He knew Dr Chao personally and said his death was a loss for the medical community.

"Sars saved my life," says Dr Tan, now 53, who turned his life around after that wake-up call, so much so that he is now fighting fit and leads by example, as chairman of the People's Association's (PA) Active Ageing Council.

"I didn't want to, one day, lie on the table and be operated on by my colleagues," he adds.

So at the age of 43, he started eating healthily and exercising more.

In just nine months, his weight dropped from 90kg to 75kg. The first thing he did was to clear his kitchen and refrigerator of junk food - potato chips, soft drinks and chocolates.

In their place, he cut strips of carrots and put them in the fridge for whenever he was peckish.

"Gradually your taste buds change... you realise a carrot is so sweet," he says over a dim sum lunch where he shuns the fried dishes and has fish porridge.

He started an exercise routine that, at the time, involved walking for about an hour at the Botanic Gardens in the morning and an hour in the evening at Bukit Timah Hill.

During his brisk walks, which he now does occasionally amid other activities, he "sings to the sky and the flowers", he says.

"I sing 'mo li hua' (Jasmine Flower) and 'wo shi yi pian yun' (I Am A Cloud)," he says, practically singing out the titles of the Chinese songs.

His wife, Dr Mary Yang, 52, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital, accompanies him on walks and often urges him to lower his voice.

Today, he is not only leading a healthy lifestyle - he practises qigong every morning, does ballroom dancing and watches his diet - but is also spreading his knowledge of healthy living to residents in Whampoa, where he is vice-chairman of the Citizens' Consultative Committee and chairs the Active Ageing Committee.

His community involvement started eight years ago, straight after Sars, when a friend "dragged" him along to a monthly meeting of the Whampoa Citizens' Consultative Committee.

Dr Tan says: "At first, I was thinking, 'for what?'"

But he saw that three of his former patients were part of the committee and he felt very welcome in the group.

He first started giving health talks to the residents but became more involved and initiated singing and dancing programmes for the residents.

He joined the PA Active Ageing Council as vice-chairman in January 2010 and became its chairman in August last year.

The council is one of two major bodies here which promote active ageing, the other being the Council for Third Age.

He says he hopes to organise a nation- wide Active Ageing Day, where people can get free check-ups and families can be involved in healthy activities.

"We age at the time of conception. Growing is part of ageing," says Dr Tan, explaining why there should be more awareness about active ageing. "We have to be in charge of our health and not wait till we reach retirement to make friends or look for exercises to do."

He himself has many social activities, especially on Friday nights. From 8 to 9.30pm, he and his wife will be at Toa Payoh CC for their singing lesson with their 90-year-old teacher, who was Dr Tan's former patient.

After that, from 11pm to midnight, he and his wife are at their ballroom dancing class. But Friday is not his favourite day of the week.

"Sunday is the best day in my week because from 9am, I get to lead the seniors in singing until 10.30am," says Dr Tan, who lives in a bungalow in Holland Green and drives an old Mercedes-Benz.

He teaches them songs with "high moral values" which encourage them to treasure their health, take a step back, relax and be happy.

He shows a video of how he added actions to the songs to liven up the sessions and get the residents to move.

Madam Lim Soo Cheng, 65, a Whampoa resident for more than 20 years, says she is always very happy when she joins the singing group.

She is also part of Dr Tan's morning qigong group at Whampoa.

She says in Mandarin: "He is here nearly every day, I feel I would be letting him down if I were to miss a session."

Dr Tan jokes: "They call me 'auntie- uncle sha shou'." The phrase means auntie and uncle killer in Mandarin.

Luckily, his wife is not jealous of his fans in the Whampoa community.

Dr Yang says she oftens spends time with her husband in Whampoa and knows the residents too. "Everybody needs a bit of breathing space, so if he uses his time to help the community, I can only be proud," she adds.

She says her husband does not play golf and they spend a lot of time together because of their shared hobbies.

Next month, Dr Tan will take six buses of elderly Whampoa residents on an outing to Gardens by the Bay, where they will be singing and dancing outdoors.

He says he truly enjoys the company of the residents and the community leaders as it is a change from his professional life.

"Actually, the medical circle is very boring, we just talk about medical conditions and all that," he admits.

He was the former Director of Heart, Lung Transplant Programme at the National Heart Centre and it was the move to private practice in 2006 which allowed him to spend more time giving back to the community, he says.

His clinic is at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre. It was like entering a "totally different world". He adds: "I don't need to work very hard, I only need to operate on one or two and make the same money."

It also gave him more time to talk to his patients and give them advice on how to lead more healthy lifestyles.

"Exercise can drop the risk of heart disease by 14 per cent, but eating healthily can drop the risk of heart disease by 30 per cent," he adds.

He says he watches his diet and eats more greens and less carbohydrates, especially white rice. He also cuts down on his salt and sugar intake.

At hawker centres, he chooses healthy options such as fish porridge and has char kway teow only twice a year from a stall in Hong Lim Food Centre because the owners know he does not take lard.

He indulges in a steak once a year, at his brother-in-law's place during Christmas, but he makes it a point to eat five bowls of salad before eating the meat.

He is no saint, he says, and eats most things when he is on the annual family holiday with his wife and 24-year-old daughter, Philicia, who works in social media marketing.

"When we go overseas, we just eat and try whatever delicacy that we can't get in Singapore," he says. The family will visit Taiwan this year.

The emphasis on a healthy diet ties in with his aim to be a "doctor of the future", one who does not just prescribe medicine but also looks for holistic solutions.

"To be frank with you, I hate medicine," he says, adding that he is unpopular with drug companies because he has been ordering less and less medicine over the years.

"As a doctor, we should not just prescribe medicine but get to know a patient as a person... why they end up having high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol - there is a root cause," he says.

He also laments that in medical school at the National University of Singapore, where he studied from 1979 to 1984, there was only a one-hour lecture on nutrition in the syllabus, so it was up to him to read books on diet and nutrition.

"I want to be a superior doctor who prevents a disease from happening," he says.

But it was not always clear to him that he wanted to be a doctor. He admits that as a child, he was very playful.

The fourth of six siblings and the younger of two boys, he says he did badly at Catholic High School from Primary One to Primary Three.

"My report card was all red. In a class of 40, I was the third from the back," he says.

So when he returned home with his report card one day, his eldest sister - 12 years his senior - made him kneel on cockle shells, face the wall and think about how he was wasting their parents' money.

He realised he did not want to let down his parents - a businessman and a housewife - and started putting more effort into his school work.

His grades improved and he topped the class in medical school at NUS.

"My life journey has been quite smooth-sailing," he admits.


And he has no plans to retire early.

"We should retire the word retirement. I might not be able to operate well when I'm 70 but I'll still be a doctor and I'll be able to help people," says Dr Tan, whose name was submitted for a Nominated Member of Parliament position last year. He was not selected.

As a board member of the Singapore Heart Foundation and vice-chairman of the board for the past six years, he gives health talks in Mandarin. That was when he discovered he had a hidden talent.

"I could make complicated things simple," he says.

Another talent he discovered while volunteering with the Whampoa Citizens' Consultative Committee - dancing.

After he started the singing programme there, he decided to get a resident to teach social dancing.

He asked his wife to join him and they both took a liking to it. The couple went on to take private lessons.

When residents complained that they did not have enough opportunities to dance, Dr Tan started the Dazzling Whampoa night - a night of singing and social dancing - which is held once every two months.

Ms Joan Pereira, director of the PA's Active Ageing & Family Life Division, says Dr Tan's programmes "keep seniors coming back for more".

She says he is friendly and approachable and "able to connect with the seniors and attract new participants".

Dr Tan says that in order to give back to society, one must find one's "sweet spot".

"What's the whole meaning of life, money is not everything... there is a point in time when we think about how we can contribute back to society," he adds.

"It's about finding your sweet spot - combining your interest, your passion and your talent - then you'll be able to contribute back to society."

My Life So Far

'Doctors of the future will prescribe no medicine, but will interest patients in the correct mindset - leading a healthy lifestyle through diet, through exercise and, more importantly, through living happily.' - On being a doctor of the future

'When you're sick, go to a Western doctor. When you're not sick, learn the Chinese wisdoms of longevity.' - On how to take care of your health

'A physician will diagnose, surgeons add on the diagnosis and do the surgery. To me, a surgeon is a complete doctor.' - On why he wanted to be a surgeon

'To make life interesting, you have to be passionate about what you do. Sunday is the best day in my week because I lead the seniors in singing from 9 till 10.30am.' - On his favourite day of the week

'Money is not everything... there is a point in time when we think about how we can contribute back to society. It's about finding your sweet spot - combining your interest, your passion and your talent - then you'll be able to contribute back to society.' - On how to give back to the community

'Every week, you're very stressed, but when you sing, you just project your feelings into it.' - On why he loves singing


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