Test-tube baby who grew up to be a doctor

SINGAPORE - Growing up, he could not walk into a school laboratory without having test tubes waved in his face.

His classmates knew that Dr Prashanth Puspanathan was the second in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby born in Singapore.

His mother had told him about the procedure when he was just four years old, and by the age of nine he could describe how he was formed in a TV interview.

Now 28, the Victoria Junior College alumnus is a doctor in Melbourne, Australia and will be specialising in psychiatry.

Speaking to The Straits Times at the Esplanade on Thursday during a visit home, he said his IVF baby status is still a source of jokes at family gatherings.

"I just tell them, 'Hey look, I am engineered'," he said, gesturing at himself in mock vanity.

He was born 12 years after his parents got married, and on the first IVF attempt.

His mother, Mrs Kala Puspanathan, 63, said he was a "precocious and precious" child. She explained to him how he was created when he was four, while reading a book that mentioned IVF.

She added that he was talking about beached whales and the Vietnam War by the time he was in nursery school.

Indeed, she has made it a point to cut out articles she thinks he would be interested in. At the interview on Thursday, he brought an envelope filled with newspaper clippings on freezing eggs and profiles of IBM's Watson computer and Law and Foreign Minister K.Shanmugam.

He said people are his biggest interest.

"People are so fascinating to me. I don't understand why we go to zoos. You watch a lion eat, have you watched a human eat?"

This curiosity about people has spurred him to travel to see how they live. Last year alone, he went to 17 countries, including Hungary, Estonia and Spain.

He was in South Korea, Japan and China before landing in Singapore five days ago.

He has mixed work with travel too, spending three months of last year in Papua New Guinea serving villagers. He set up a company, The Barefoot Medical Project, approaching the local government directly for permission.

There, he operated out of a hut, assisted by a nurse, midwife and physiotherapist, using the most basic of medical equipment. A blood test was done by comparing the colour of blood against a chart.

But this, he said, is his favourite model of practice, where the machine is used only for confirmation.

He said his decision to work there was not entirely altruistic, as he gained from it as well.

"Travelling is my education," he added.

True to his restless nature, he owns neither a permanent address nor any furniture in Australia, where he stays in a rented flat.

The only possession he has, and which he calls his "baby", is a red-and-white 1962 Mini CooperS, which he said is a reflection of his personality.

But one mainstay in his life, Dr Puspanathan added, is the family home - a bungalow in Telok Kurau - where his parents and sister, a 21-year-old student, live.

His father, Mr Puspanathan Kathigesu, 67, is a business consultant, and his mother is a tutor.

Speaking of his sister, Ms Abinaya Puspanathan, he said she was a wish come true. At age six, he told his parents that he wanted a sister.

He prayed hard, he added, when his parents told him it would be impossible to grant such a wish, but they tried for a second child and she was conceived naturally.

He said he went to Australia to study medicine at Monash University because he could not secure a place at the National University of Singapore.

His time away from Singapore can be a source of worry for his mother, who said she is always praying for his safety since he pursues activities that carry risks.

His pastimes include free climbing, which involves climbing rock walls without support.

But he is also a fan of salsa and poetry and plays the tabla, an Indian musical instrument.

His love for music will take him to India in three weeks' time, first to Chennai for a classical music festival, then to Goa for a trance music festival.

Despite many pins on a world map indicating where he has visited, home is where the heart is for the single doctor.

He said: "This is where friends, family and food are, so this will always be home for me."

jalmsab@sph.com.sg


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