A year ago, Ms Eleanor Chai had what most would dream of: a five-figure monthly salary and almost a decade of experience working in some of Asia’s most prestigious law firms, with postings to Hong Kong and Beijing under her belt.
However, her illustrious career only seemed to intensify the nagging feeling that she could be doing more to help people.
“It felt like it was my calling to heal people, something which I associate with the study and practice of medicine,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘On my deathbed, can I look back on my life and say that I’ve lived it with no regrets?’”
As such, after nine years as a lawyer working in finance, she decided to embark on a career switch and began looking for medical schools.
Of all the schools she was considering, Duke-NUS Medical School stood head and shoulders above the rest. “I’d heard good things about the quality of teaching at Duke-NUS,” she recalls.
Despite achieving a competitive score in her Graduate Medical School Admissions Test, she needed an institution where academic support was readily available to help her achieve her goal.
“My undergraduate degree isn’t in science,” she explains. “So, I knew there would be a steep learning curve going into medical school.”
Testimonials from students who had come from non-science backgrounds put her mind at ease.
“According to them, faculty members, no matter how busy, would go out of their way to share their knowledge,” she says. “They were really invested in making sure that students had the opportunity to develop their skills.”
Upon enrolling in Duke-NUS, she found the community to be even more supportive than she had imagined. Many of her seniors volunteer their time to help their juniors with the practical aspect of the curriculum.
“At Duke-NUS, there’s always someone you can ask, be it a professor, senior or classmate,” says Ms Chai. “I’m really grateful for such a conducive learning environment in which I can always clarify any doubts.”
The transition hadn’t been easy by any means, of course. Moving from law to medicine was no walk in the park, particularly at an institution as academically rigorous as Duke-NUS.
But Ms Chai is determined to make up for lost time. “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” she says, quoting neurologist Viktor Frankl.
“Just like in law, there’ll be times when it’s really challenging in medical practice, but you have to have a reason to keep going.”
Besides, she knows that her colleagues will be beside her every step of the way. “It’s an amazing community of support that Duke-NUS has created.”
Going beyond the medical textbook
Not all students make quite as drastic a leap as Ms Chai. Some choose to go to medical school right after finishing their undergraduate degree, like Ms Maimi Higuchi.
After observing a medical team caring for tsunami victims at a relief effort in Japan following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, Ms Higuchi was inspired to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology at Stanford University.
“I wondered if there was a direct link between the natural events surrounding the disaster and their immune systems,” she says, noting that the patients’ mental health also seemed to be directly impacted as a result of the disaster,” she says. The tsunami victims suffered from swollen lymph nodes due to radiation exposure following the March 11 disaster.
“My curiosity towards their surroundings, physical health and mental health all connected together led me to an interest in pursuing human-centric science at university,” she adds.
But even as she conducted her research, she found herself yearning to make a more tangible difference in human lives.
“Yes, working in the lab was meaningful, but it comprised solely data and numbers,” she says.
“While I still do feel that research is an integral part of medicine, I felt drawn towards the humanism in medicine — the relief of patients as their conditions improved or the joy when they reunited with family and friends.
“The experience to build relationships and touch lives was most precious and gratifying to me.”
While other science majors pursued research in labs, Ms Higuchi volunteered in primary care clinics, hospitals and palliative care wards in the US while she was completing her undergraduate degree.
And over time she became even more interested in pursuing a medical degree post-graduation.
Even after considering a myriad of medical schools around the world, Duke-NUS was easily Ms Higuchi’s foremost choice. One deciding factor was its ample opportunities for her to continue her research while pursuing a medical education.
“As one of the top graduate medical schools in Asia, Duke-NUS actually has a very good reputation in Stanford,” she says. “Plus, to me, it seemed like a really great community to be part of, with such a heavy emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.”
Furthermore, as one of the region’s top medical schools, Duke-NUS would help open many doors to the rest of Asia for her. Thanks to Duke-NUS’ strategic partnership with public health group SingHealth, students are also able to benefit from SingHealth’s wealth of clinical expertise, as well as numerous collaborative opportunities across its Academic Clinical Programmes.
“Also, I always wanted to work with people from many different countries,” she says. “Since Singapore is a big hub of medical innovation, education and technology, I’d be able to work with a much larger population than if I were to practise medicine back in Japan.”
Rigorous, fast-paced curriculum
Even with an undergraduate degree in science, Ms Higuchi still finds the pace of medical school challenging as Duke-NUS is known among the medical community for having a rigorous, highly accelerated curriculum.
Unlike most medical schools, Duke-NUS integrates basic science content into the first year to allow students to start clinical rotations by their second year and to explore cutting-edge scientific issues by their third year. This approach will help to prepare students for their medical practice and enable them to improve the practice of medicine through research.
Students undergo training at the simulation rooms of the Clinical Performance Centre where they develop knowledge, skills and attitudes through interacting with actors playing the role of patients, or computerised mannequins that replicate real-life scenarios.
Being able to apply theoretical knowledge in a clinical environment at an early stage helps students to better retain and reinforce what they learn early on in their medical education.
“It’s quite a challenge for the first year, but it’s all worth it for your second year when you can get in the wards and work with the patients.”
Ms Higuchi enjoys the healthcare simulation training sessions and can hardly wait to get to class every day. “Group discussions allow us to bounce ideas off of each other, using real-life human cases,” she says.
Furthermore, these “human cases” – in reality, trained actors – never come in with the textbook definition of the signs and symptoms that Ms Higuchi and her colleagues are trained to look for. Some interrupt trainees by going on long tangents; others with frantic or irritated outbursts.
“It’s up to us to understand and accept all the aspects of what makes a patient human and carefully reason how best to help them,” she continues. “They constantly impress on us the importance of not just treating a condition or sickness, but also holistically treating a person.”
And her discussions with teammates are just as likely to take place over a zichar dinner as they are within the four walls of a Duke-NUS seminar room. Outside of class time, her teammates have also been eagerly showing her around Singapore.
Having classmates from diverse backgrounds like pharmacy, engineering, and finance has made learning interesting, says Ms Higuchi, who is confident that the friendships she has forged in Duke-NUS will be lifelong ones.
“I’m part of such an amazing community that I’m super grateful to have,” she says.
Applications for the 2023 intake at Duke-NUS Medical School are now open. For more information, visit https://www.duke-nus.edu.sg/admissions/