For all his achievements so far, Dr Isaac Liu, 34, has his late father to thank, for inspiring him with his resilience and spirit of volunteerism.
An active member in church and a regular volunteer at the Singapore Children’s Society, Dr Liu’s father worked hard to take care of the family and put his son through medical school. An illness when he was 30 years old resulted in the senior Mr Liew becoming blind and deaf, but he continued living a meaningful life, working and volunteering until his death from a brain tumour.
“His life was an inspiration to the people around him. I admired him because he was able to overcome his weakness to help others. That’s something I try to embody as well,” Dr Liu says of his father.
Dr Liu’s first volunteer stint was arranged through a co-curricular activity group in junior college to clean houses for, and spend time with, residents of one-room flats every week. The experience made him realise that his passion was to foster long-term relationships with people in need, which in turn led him to pursue medical studies so he could do more to help others in future.
The consultant paediatric nephrologist and clinician-scientist at National University Hospital (NUH) has stepped up his efforts to make a difference in society.
After receiving the Singapore Young Investigator Award (Gold) in Basic Science and Translational Research in 2014, Dr Liu clinched the National University Health System Clinician Scientist Program Award in 2017.
Recently, he was awarded grants from the National Medical Research Council and the NUH Summit Research Program, to further his research in screening patients for early signs of kidney disease. If successful, his research could reduce diabetic complications by 30 per cent in the next 10 years.
His efforts to raise awareness of kidney disease also resulted in the establishment of a nationwide children’s registry, as well as a kidney diseases consortium comprising several healthcare institutions, with the help of the local nephrology community.
Driven to excel
Thirty-hour work shifts are the norm for Dr Liu. Even after he knocks off from work, he constantly worries about whether a patient will develop a fever, or the condition of another will suddenly deteriorate.
“Every time you see a patient getting better — a child getting better — that just makes your day and keeps you moving,” he says.
Dr Liu believes that learning from his patients’ determination and grit is just as important as improving their quality of life.
“A lot of the time, they inspire me to keep going when the going gets tough. I always tell them I could never go through something like them. They give me strength,” he adds.
And during challenging times, he reminds himself the reason for his work and the goals he is working towards for, and continues to push ahead.
“I am grateful to incredible mentors who continually inspire me and show me the way, and to all my colleagues who are tirelessly dedicated to our patients,” he says.
“We are together thankful to our patients for placing their trust in us.”
Besides being known for his research on kidney disease, Dr Liu is also recognised in the medical community as Chief Doctor for the Shaw-National Kidney Foundation Children’s Kidney Centre Annual Camp.
Since 2006, he has been leading a team of over 20 nurses, doctors and non-medical volunteers to engage children with kidney diseases in unconventional activities such as outdoor adventure courses.
The uphill task is challenging not only to the children who would normally not be able to participate in them, but also to Dr Liu’s team, which has to overcome obstacles such as performing dialysis in an outdoor environment.
“You may think that a blind girl might not be able to climb a rock wall or do high rope obstacles, but it’s only because they didn’t have the chance,” he says. “But with supervision, they actually dare to go all out.”
Dr Liu is heartened and encouraged by the children’s bravery to overcome their fears and have fun despite the challenging circumstances.
“It was that kind of spirit that made me want to join them. I want to bring out the potential in them that we all have,” he adds.
Inspiring and changing mindsets
The dedication of his volunteers never fails to raise Dr Liu’s spirits. He notes that some of them have been volunteering since they were 14 years old, and have always turned up to lend a hand at the annual camp, even when they have enlisted for National Service.
Their volunteer work has led to new friendships with the patients and the experience has proven to be transformative — they start to be more open-minded and develop a different worldview.
“A lot of them end up taking away that altruism, spirit of charity and community service,” he says. “This is the kind of change we want to see — people learning to pay it forward.”
Dr Liu believes there is still much to be done, not just in the research and treatment of kidney disease, but also in cultivating a more service-oriented mindset among young Singaporeans.
He feels that one should not just focus on pursuing individual success, but success as a society.
“We can all be at the forefront of our own fields, but if we don’t look out for our fellow man, there will be nothing to tie us together as Singaporeans,” he explains.
Dr Liu wants to galvanise people and encourage them to devote their lives to service and strive to do their best each day.
“I want to let them know that there is great potential in this work and mission,” he says. “Every single day is important. Make it count.”
Correction note: The article introduction has been edited for clarity.