When he just entered the teenage years, Lim Ziyi started to visit the hospital often.
He did not set his goal to become a doctor that early though. He was there because of his mother – she had cancer.
In the 1980s, when cancer treatment was still in its early days, patients did not have the option of day treatment nor any means to avoid the side effects that came along with conventional cancer treatment methods.
Dr Lim Ziyi had to visit his mother over the period she was hospitalised to receive surgery and treatment for uterine cancer. He was by her side, witnessing her fits of nausea and sickness when she received the therapy. Even today, he remembered the fear and worry he had for her.
Now in her 70s, her cancer has been in remission for more than 20 years. “She is lucky. Many patients are not so fortunate back then,” says Dr Lim.
His close encounter with cancer was perhaps one of the reasons for his desire to do medicine in school. In his words: “Being in the hospital, you just feel like helping people.”
Twenty years down the road, now happily married and a parent of three boys, he has fulfilled his wish, and is now a specialist in haemato-oncology and haematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
Dr Lim, who joined Parkway Cancer Centre in November 2013 received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, UK, and subsequently underwent specialist training in haemato-oncology at King’s College Hospital, London.
He then worked at the hospital for nine years where he helped to develop the department of haematology into one of the largest allogeneic haematopoietic stem cell transplant centres in Europe.
“I was very interested to study how diseases can affect a human. I had originally aimed to become a pathologist. But my mentor, who is a haematologist, suggested that his speciality could be something I can work on. So I thought, why not, since a haematologist not only trains in pathology, but also sees patients; I can get the best of both worlds.”
Now, a typical day for him starts at 7.30 am in wards, doing rounds, followed by clinic sessions and then going back to the ward again.
In between, he will find some time to check for the latest medical updates on the computer and also set some time for research and teaching.
One big group of patients Dr Lim takes care of are those with acute leukaemia. “Acute leukaemia is one of the most difficult to treat, as patients can become sick very quickly. But it is also the most challenging and the satisfaction when I manage to help someone get through it, is great,” he said.
Despite advances in treatment, current chemotherapy can only cure 30 to 40 per cent of adults. Many of these patients will have to have a stem cell transplant to give them a chance of long-term remission.
While the field of stem cell transplantation has advanced, the technique is not perfected and complications such as infection and graft versus host disease can still occur. Sometimes, these complications can be bad as or even worse than the disease itself.
Dr Lim Ziyi spends a significant part of his time on finding a better cure, or developing new methods to allow more people to benefit from bone marrow transplant.
Traditionally, patients can only have a bone marrow transplant if they have a fully-matched donor. However, Dr Lim has expertise in the use of haploidentical transplants (50 per cent matched transplants), where the donor can be a family member who is only half-matched with the patient.
“If we can use half-matched donors, then almost all patients will be able to find a donor from within their family.” If more people are unwilling to come forward to donate their bone marrow, patients will have better chances of finding a match and hence, recovery.
Hence, one part of Dr Lim’s work is also to work with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) – which is the national bone marrow donor registry in Singapore to increase awareness of the benefits of bone marrow transplant, and to encourage more young healthy Singaporeans to come forward and volunteer to be a donor. “As bone marrow donor, you have the opportunity to save someone’s life,” he says.
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