The Pro

He takes heart from saving lives

Dr Paul Chiam says treating heart disease is akin to unblocking choked pipes and sealing leaky valves in a water pump room.
Dr Paul Chiam says treating heart disease is akin to unblocking choked pipes and sealing leaky valves in a water pump room.ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

But a healthy lifestyle is still the best way to avoid an attack, says cardiologist Paul Chiam

I sub-specialise in interventional cardiology because...

I can use minimally invasive procedures, such as angioplasty and stenting of heart arteries, to save a patient's life during a heart attack, or his limb if it is gangrenous.

The heart is fascinating because...

It beats on its own throughout our lives but, when it stops, it's forever.

One little-known fact about a heart attack is that...

It is like a volcano. It can erupt suddenly, without warning.

  • BioBox


    Age: 43

    Occupation: Consultant cardiologist at The Heart and Vascular Centre at Mount Elizabeth Hospital

    As a child, Dr Chiam was terrified when he saw a heart beating on television, complete with sound effects. Yet, this fear turned into fascination when he was a medical student at the National University of Singapore, where he graduated on the Dean's List in 1996.

    In 2006, he went for an 18-month interventional fellowship programme at the Lenox Hill Heart and Vascular Institute in New York in the United States, specialising in complex coronary angioplasty, carotid artery stenting, peripheral artery angioplasty and structural heart disease interventions.

    He later spent three months at the State University of New York, training in intracranial angioplasty and stenting.

    In 2009, while he was a senior consultant cardiologist at the National Heart Centre Singapore, he performed Asia's first transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

    This is a minimally invasive procedure that repairs the valve without removing the old, damaged valve. It is used to treat patients whose aortic valves are severely narrowed.

    Dr Chiam is married to a 38-year-old pathologist. They have three children aged 11, nine and seven.

To avoid an attack, we should adopt a healthy lifestyle, and keep risk factors such as diabetes and high cholesterol under control.

What I do is like being...

A specialist in a water pump room. I track and fix blockages in the pipes (arteries), using tools like treadmill stress tests, computed tomography angiography (a special X-ray of the arteries) and invasive angiography.

I also check the valves for chokes or leaks using echocardiography (cardiac ultrasound).

A typical day for me starts...

At 6.45am, when I wake up and drive my three children to school. I reach the hospital by 8am and see patients, if any, in the wards.

My clinic opens at 9am and usually closes at 5pm. I also perform procedures in between appointments with patients. I'm usually home by 6.30pm for dinner with my family.

Weekends are spent catching up with my extended family.

I play badminton with family members and former schoolmates. Other interests include martial arts (karate and jiu-jitsu) and motor sports.

I come across all types of cases...

From teenagers to the elderly. Some are relatively well - they are referred to me for cardiac screening and assessment. Others have more serious problems, such as blocked or narrowed heart arteries.

I also treat patients who experience pain in the legs while walking, and those with foot ulcers or gangrene because of narrowed or blocked arteries in the legs.

I love patients who are...

Motivated to help themselves. They change their lifestyles after their heart attacks - they quit smoking, take up exercise and alter their dietary habits.

I feel that changing one's lifestyle is one of the hardest things to do.

Patients who get my goat are...

Those who are unreasonable or demanding. I try to explain the problems faced by the medical team, and tell them we're doing our best.

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

Helping a very ill patient recover and walk out of the hospital.

Once, I treated a woman who had severe heart failure because of a narrowed aortic valve.

Even though she was given medication for several days, the fluid in her lungs could not be cleared. It made her so breathless that she could not get out of bed.

My team performed an urgent minimally invasive procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

This technique is commonly performed via a small puncture in the groin - a new valve is delivered by way of a catheter (tube) into the heart and then implanted in the aortic valve.

After this procedure, the fluid in her lungs was finally cleared, and she went home a week later.

It breaks my heart when...

Patients do not do well, or develop complications such as stroke, despite our best efforts.

My best tip...

Start leading a healthy lifestyle - exercise regularly and avoid smoking - at a young age, as cardiovascular disease does not develop overnight.

Screen for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol - if any of these are present, you can keep them under control.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'He takes heart from saving lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe