Since the time he was a houseman, Professor Ho’s affinity with younger patients was noted by his peers and teachers. He chuckles as he recalls what was said about him: ‘Every time a baby, a child, or adolescent was admitted to the ward, invariably, the senior doctors will say, “Get this guy to go and look after them, he has a w ay with kids.”’
His interest in Paediatrics led to his specialisation in Neonatology, the medical care of newborn infants. He was the founding head of Neonatology at SGH when it was set up in 1986. The department was the first in Singapore to have an ultrasound machine to study newborn babies’ brains.
Two of the four national neonatal screening programmes in Singapore were initiated by Prof Ho at SGH before they were implemented nationwide: the test for hypothyroidism and the Universal Neonatal Hearing Screening (UNHS). Both were pilot projects before they became national programmes.
The contributions Prof Ho has made to Medicine are the result not only of his dedication to science and research, but also his strong sense of civic responsibility. He has stayed in public service because of his ‘sense of mission’ as a doctor. He uses this phrase with a simple directness; the words are as heartfelt and grounded as the man himself.
When he teaches his students at the Duke-NUS Medical School, he includes a 15-minute slice of biographical history chosen from the annals of medical history. He shares the life stories of the men and women who have made giant contributions to Medicine, because he wants his students to ponder: what are the qualities and values, the life situations, that made these extraordinary achievements possible?
It is, in fact, possible to gain insight into Prof Ho’s work ethic by applying this teaching method of his to his own biography. A story from his internship sheds light on how his awareness of the need to go beyond the sphere of Medicine to help the less fortunate was shaped from early on.
When he was a houseman in Paediatrics, Prof Ho met a five-year-old patient with Fallot’s tetralogy, a congenital heart condition. Prof Ho became familiar with her because she was often warded during his night duty and he had to give her oxygen. On the nights when he wasn’t working, he stayed back in the hospital to finish his paperwork. He got used to the girl with the sickly blue pallor asking if she could sit beside him in his little office. ‘I always say, okay, but you don’t disturb me,’ Prof Ho says, casting his mind back to that distant time nearly 50 years ago.
The reason he always relented to her request was because he had noticed her neglect by her parents. It was the era when most traditional Chinese families preferred boys over girls. The poor girl’s Chinese horoscope sign was the tiger; girls born in the year of the tiger were thought to be jinxes.
One day around Christmas, he returned to the ward to work. Seeing him, a nurse told him that the girl had passed away the previous night and that she’d left him a drawing of the two of them sitting together.
‘I still have it,’ Prof Ho says. ‘She wrote on it: “ Merry X’mas, Doctor.”’
His understanding of the role that doctors can play as advocates for child patients expanded further during the time he spent at Toronto SickKids (The Hospital for Sick Children) where he went for further studies in Neonatology. SickKids, the most reputable hospital for Neonatology, was also the first hospital in the world to have a child abuse prevention programme.
Since then, Prof Ho has been a champion of social programmes for children. He was involved in a review of child abuse in Singapore in 1985, the first of its kind in the country. He began volunteering in 1988 as a member of the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Standing Committee at the Singapore Children’s Society, where he currently serves as Deputy Chairman.
He credits his upbringing for instilling in him the discipline to work hard and making him aware that success in life is more than just getting top grades. ‘My parents were not well-educated in the academic sense, but they were educated,’ he shares. ‘They taught us about values. My mother was illiterate but she worked hard to learn how to write her name and her proudest moment was when she was able to sign her name on a cheque.’
When he speaks about his past successes, especially the groundbreaking work he’s done in improving the lives of countless children in Singapore, he almost always begins with a self-deprecating anecdote, as if to say, he happened to be around when someone was needed to do a particular job. But the moment he starts going into the details of each project, his manner turns serious and an earnest light appears in his eyes.
What he gets his team to do is to start with ‘first principles’, grasping the fundamentals of the work at hand and knocking on as many doors as possible to get the resources. Next comes perseverance: ‘If I fail, probably people will say, you see, they started this thing and they failed, so there’s no point in restarting again. Which isn’t good, right? So, just do it.’
Responding to patients’ needs has sent Prof Ho ‘walking out of the ward into the community.’ He is well-known for his efforts at promoting awareness of early childhood development and education in Singapore. When he speaks about the early days of the Development Assessment Clinic at Bowyer Block, he mentions a large machine he had to wheel from the ward to the clinic. The staff at the clinic were mainly part-timers who came from multiple disciplines —speech therapist, physiotherapist.
Prof Ho’s students have told him that they don’t understand why he includes lessons on the values and life experiences of great scientists and doctors, until they start work.
We were very small and our name was very small too. But this also means, you are left to do your own thing and no one is going to disturb you, which means you can do big things.’ He smiles broadly. ‘Back then, there was no such thing as medical research fund. We had to try our best to get things done. Back then, our annual retreat had three or four staff. Now, the department of Child Development [at KKH] has a hundred over staff.'
His dream is that one day, Paediatrics will return to SGH. ‘Look at t he great hospitals in the world. All of t hem are comprehensive in that way,’ he says in a bright voice as his photo is being taken on the seventh floor of Academia.
SGH Campus is a sprawling vista of greenery and buildings. It is a telling moment. The clinician, researcher, mentor and advocate of social justice —the many roles this one man has played so well—are all expressions of his conviction in the good that can be done here, in this country, as long as we dare to dream, believe and hope.
Professor Ho Lai Yun is the founding Head of the Department of Neonatology (1986–2004) and is currently Emeritus Consultant, Department of Neonatal and Developmental Medicine, SGH and a Clinician Mentor. He founded then Child Development Unit at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital and later at SGH. He has been the Director, Child Development Programme, Ministry of Health, since 2002. He pioneered many multidisciplinary perinatal programmes in Singapore. He also initiated congenital hypothyroidism screening and neonatal hearing screening in the 1990s, which have become national programmes since. Prof Ho is recognised locally and internationally as a strong advocate of child welfare and protection, early childhood education and intervention. He is actively involved in community projects that address social and educational issues, such as child abuse and neglect, bullying in schools, parenting attitudes, pre-school education and children with special needs. He plays a leading role in building an inclusive, family-focused and community-based early childhood intervention ecosystem in Singapore.
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