Dr Damien Tan believes in living life to the fullest. In that sense, he’s open to whatever life has to offer.
Still, it’s a surprise that one of the things that Dr Tan tried while living at his university hostel was social dancing. It is not something that many men — in particular, adventurous ones like Dr Tan, who are keen on deep-sea diving and mountain trekking — would try. But thanks to his can-do and open disposition, he met his wife at the dance class.
That attitude also led to Dr Tan specialising in the pancreas — a specialty that he would devote his life’s work to. Years back, when he was planning to further his medical education overseas in a subspecialty, he was asked if he would consider training in performing pancreatic endoscope procedures, an uncommon area of speciality.
“By my nature, I said ‘sure’. I trained at two top centres abroad, and I saw nothing but pancreas patients because the scopes for pancreas were all advanced cases,” said Dr Tan, Senior Consultant, Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
“Pancreatic cancers are not common but highly deadly — one of the worst cancers to have,” said Dr Tan, noting that only about 5 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients survive beyond five years after treatment.
“When I came back, I started doing a lot of research to improve the early detection of pancreatic cancer. Research is what really drives me because I know, if I want to make a difference, the science is important. I can do a biopsy; I can put in a stent; but I need to do research so that I can help patients survive beyond that threshold.”
Just as he has put aside his more daring streak now that he has a family, which includes two young sons, Dr Tan also has had to balance his time between research and his work as the recently appointed Medical Director of SGH’s Endoscopy Centre, which includes the Ambulatory Endoscopic Centre (AEC), and Inpatient and Lung Endoscopy Centre (ILEC).
Set up more than three years ago, the AEC is where patients can have their gastrointestinal tract assessed via scopes for possible cancers or other conditions. It is also one of the biggest in Singapore, seeing over 30,000 patients a year.
Ensuring smooth workflow within the Centre takes up much of his time. He also chips in by performing a number of these procedures. “There are five or six of us here, who are trained in advanced endoscopy, allowing us to handle the more complex, higher-risk procedures. But 90 per cent of the cases are the regular bread-and-butter kind, so we help out wherever needed,” he said.
Dr Tan is also Director for Advanced Endoscopy Fellowships for his department, and has a hand in training doctors from different parts of the world, such as the Philippines, Pakistan, and Bahrain.
Despite his heavy responsibilities, he sets aside time for his family. “I like spending time with my two young sons. We enjoy playing soccer, swimming, or doing outdoor stuff. Holidays with the family are great. We like Hokkaido in particular — the good food and simply chilling out,” he added.
Thankful that his wife supports and understands his work commitments, he is equally appreciative that he has not had to miss any birthdays or important family moments yet.
“It’s truly a privilege to be doing what I do. I see people at their most vulnerable moments, and every word I say or every touch I give can make a difference. Knowing that helps, especially at times when I need to drive back [to hospital] at 3am to help a bleeding patient. The smile from a patient or a grateful relative really keeps me going,” Dr Tan said.
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