Germ-buster for kids

BIO BOX: Dr Mas Suhaila Isa

AGE: 35

OCCUPATION: Consultant at the division of paediatric infectious diseases at National University Hospital (NUH)

Dr Mas has always loved babies and children, so being able to attend to them is what keeps her going at work.

Another reason for her choice of field is her 58-year-old mother, a retired nurse who spent close to 40 years caring for adults and children with cancer.

As a child, Dr Mas would wait at the hospital for her mother and saw first-hand how she tended to children with cancer.

When the time came for her to choose a medical speciality, she recognised a pressing need for doctors in Singapore who could take care of children stricken with complex conditions because of infections.

Her patients range from newborn babies to teenagers up to the age of 16. She is one of only two paediatric infectious disease specialists at NUH and is happy to treat children with cancer as well as those suffering from other ailments.

She finds germs "fascinating and powerful", but thinks the human body is even more amazing. "I love this aspect of my job: I have to consider the patient as a whole, as opposed to just one part of his body."

She is married to a 35-year-old mechanical engineer. They have two children aged six and two. She is expecting her third child in March.

I specialise in treating infectious diseases in children because...

I have always been intrigued by how germs find ways and means to evade our immune system, how antibiotics were developed, and how germs develop resistance against these antibiotics.

My team and I see patients from every sub-specialty so we have to know a little - or a lot - about everything in the world of paediatrics, not just one particular organ such as the brain or the heart.

Children's bodies are fascinating because...

Their bodies are growing and have unique medical needs, so they are not just mini adults.

They may not always answer medical questions, or be patient and cooperative, so paediatricians have to find ways to examine and treat them as they express their concerns differently from adults.

Yet, children can be amazingly resilient. I have seen children who managed to bounce back from the brink of death.

One little-known fact about infectious diseases is...

Prevention is the key to fighting many infectious diseases.

This includes proper handwashing techniques; certain contact precautions, depending on the disease type; adhering to the nationally recommended immunisation schedule; taking medications as prescribed; and not taking antibiotics unnecessarily.

If I were to give an analogy for what I do, I would be...

Sherlock Holmes.

I gather clues from everything I see in the sick child - taking into account his medical history based on the symptoms experienced and examining his body - which I then use to identify the culprit germ and give the right treatment.

There is no typical day for me because...

It seems that each day is full of new and exciting things.

In addition to inpatient and outpatient clinical work, I also teach medical students, residents and fellows, and keep up-to-date with developments in my field. I also have administrative and research duties.

I end work between 6pm and 9pm, after which I go home to catch up with my family. I love to hear my children's laughter at the end of a busy workday.

I have come across...

Common conditions such as chest infections and skin infections, as well as exotic infections, often imported from overseas, for example, rare parasitic infections.

I look after children who have infective complications following a bone marrow transplant. Sometimes, I am referred children who have persistent fever despite the use of many types of antibiotics.

I love the challenge of solving a puzzle and seeing patients' conditions improve with the correct therapy. I am still learning each day from treating patients.

I love patients who are...

Positive in the face of their diseases, who continue to be motivated and diligently take their medication.

Things that put a smile on my face are...

Seeing a patient's fever disappear with the right diagnosis and treatment; when a child recognises me and calls me by name; getting a high-five from a patient in bed.

It breaks my heart when...

I see children become critically ill or die from vaccine-preventable diseases.

I am most frustrated when children are not immunised because their parents are misinformed.

One mother asked me if the pneumococcal vaccine protects against only a small number of strains. While that is true, the strains of pneumococcus covered by the vaccine cause 90 per cent of the invasive (serious) diseases, such as meningitis (brain infection), bloodstream infections and bad pneumonias.

Other parents omit or postpone vaccinations for their children for fear of possible side effects, which have no scientific basis.

We have begun to see resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio because of the decisions of misinformed parents.

My best tip...

Let your children eat well, sleep well and play a lot. It is also good to instil habits such as hand washing after playing and before eating, and covering their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing.

I hope parents will acquire accurate and scientifically based information about vaccines so that they will not make decisions that could threaten their children's health.

joanchew@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 14, 2015.
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