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A surgeon’s heart, an engineer’s mind

Dr Darius Aw (back row, third from the right) at the Duke-NUS TeamLEAD (Learn, Engage, Apply and Develop) room where students are engaged in a progressive learning pedagogy. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL
Dr Darius Aw (back row, third from the right) at the Duke-NUS TeamLEAD (Learn, Engage, Apply and Develop) room where students are engaged in a progressive learning pedagogy. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL
Dr Darius Aw aims to sub-specialise in an area of general surgery after completing his residency. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL
Dr Darius Aw aims to sub-specialise in an area of general surgery after completing his residency. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL

Duke-NUS Medical School alumnus Dr Darius Aw uses his engineering knowledge and surgical skills to help patients

General surgery is not for the faint-hearted.

To illustrate this point, surgeon Dr Darius Aw recounted an episode during his first year of training at the hospital.

Then a surgical trainee, he had to assist — under the watchful eye of his mentor — an emergency open hernia repair for a patient with an unstable heart rate of 140 to 150 beats per minute. A healthy adult has an average heart rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute.

For every stitch and every knot he made, Dr Aw was holding his breath for fear that the patient's heart may stop anytime.

Speed and accuracy are critical to the success of any surgery.

“In an acute emergency, if you make the right call, do the right thing at the right time with an appropriate surgical intervention, a life can be saved,” says Dr Aw.

The 33-year-old is in his fourth-year of residency at the general surgery department at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

He graduated from a four-year undergraduate degree in bioengineering at Nanyang Technological University in 2010, before taking up the four-year graduate medicine course at Duke-NUS Medical School.

“Surgery is a very technical field of medicine, as we have a range of devices that we use to assist us in the operating theatre. Having an engineering background has made it easier to understand how the devices function,” says Dr Aw.

Duke-NUS Medical School, he says, has helped him fulfil his dream to become a doctor.

“Given my biomedical background, I was enthusiastic in medical-related matters. Duke-NUS therefore presented itself as an opportunity to try and achieve what I could not achieve when I was younger.”

Dr Aw adds that being a postgraduate medical graduate has its advantages.

“We have the advantage of knowing what we really want to stay focused on the path we have taken, and at the same time, the maturity to sustain this passion.

“The fact that we have diverse backgrounds allows us to see things in different ways. These are probably the strongest traits that Duke-NUS students can bring to the medical world,” he says.

Dr Aw works in SGH as part of his general surgery residency, which takes at least five to six years to complete. A residency is a long-term training programme in a restructured hospital that doctors undergo to become specialists or family physicians.

A typical workday for Dr Aw starts between 6.30am to 7am, when he checks on his patients in the hospital wards. The ward visits are followed by consultations in the outpatient clinic or surgeries in the operating theatre.

He usually ends his workday with another round of ward visits before knocking off between 6pm to 7pm. But there are days when he has to stay on to attend to patients.

“Some of the most satisfying parts of my job are when I walk out of the operating room, knowing that I have done good for the patient, and that he or she has benefited from the surgery and is on the way to recovery.”

He took a longer-than-usual route to achieve his dream. Yet every stage of the journey contributed to shaping him as an individual and prepared him for his current role as a general surgeon.

After graduation, Dr Aw rotated through postings in general surgery, orthopaedic surgery as well as obstetrics and gynaecology.

He decided to specialise in general surgery as he liked the subject, the work culture and the fast-paced working environment.

After completing his residency, Dr Aw plans to sub-specialise in an area of general surgery.