Eating lots of greens, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly may sound like tired old adages everyone hears from doctors (and their own mothers). However beneficial these habits are, many struggle to adhere to them due to reasons ranging from limited workplace meal options and hectic schedules, to, well, laziness.
But according to cardiologist Dr Soon Chao Yang, who specialises in treating heart-related issues, incorporating these practices in one's lifestyle is not just a way to stay in shape; it can also reduce the risk of heart disease — one of the leading causes of death in Singapore. “The heart is like the engine of our body. It is in charge of clearing the dirty blood and changing it to fresh blood that carries oxygen and provides one with energy to continue living,” says Soon, who runs The Heart Doctors Clinic at Mount Alvernia Hospital. “[To keep this engine in top form,] there are things we need to do, such as having a diet high in vegetables, exercising, resting enough and taking care of one's cholesterol levels.”
Contrary to the common belief that younger people can't be afflicted with heart issues, Dr Soon has treated patients as young as 20 for coronary heart disease, where fatty deposits build up in the vessels supplying blood to the heart and obstruct blood flow. According to him, it is the “second-largest killer disease in Singapore, just behind cancer” and is more prevalent among those in their mid-40s and above. An unhealthy diet, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle and high stress levels, may contribute to one getting it earlier, he adds: “People always think: ‘I'm too young to get heart problems.' But nowadays, we notice that coronary heart disease is getting younger. It's multifactorial [but one's] lifestyle definitely plays a big role.”
Due to the unpredictability of cardiovascular issues, he recommends that people go for a heart screening if they develop symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath and palpitations, or if they have any family history of heart disease. The first line of screening is typically done by family doctors, who will conduct tests such as blood pressure and cholesterol checks, before referring the patient to a heart specialist if any abnormalities are discovered. Cardiologists like Soon then administer procedures, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) test, to determine any signs of heart disease. “Early detection is always of paramount importance,” he says. “Lots of people tend to dismiss their symptoms because they think it's just gastric or muscle pain…but sometimes, the first time the symptoms present themselves could be the last time. That's the scary part of heart disease.” Formally trained in interventional cardiology (a field that involves invasive catheter-based treatments), Soon also performs procedures such as angiography and stenting on patients with blocked arteries.
Born in Singapore and raised in Kuching, Sarawak, the 41-year-old knew he wanted to be a doctor from a young age, after observing his uncle (a family doctor) help patients recover from illnesses. After completing his high school education in Christchurch, he studied Medicine at the University of Otago and worked in hospitals in New Zealand and England before moving here in 2001 to train in cardiology at the National University Hospital. Wanting to delve deeper into this “dynamic and intensive” field, Soon headed to the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center and Texas Heart Institute in Houston in 2007, where he pursued the sub-specialty of interventional cardiology.
After working at several local hospitals, he opened his practice at Mount Alvernia last July, centred on the hospital's philosophy: To serve all with love. He says: “I like to give my patients chances to discuss with me their concerns, even if it sometimes is not related to heart issues.”
Outside of work, Soon sits on the committee of the Singapore Heart Foundation, which organises programmes to educate students on the importance of heart health. Despite his hectic schedule, he is an avid sportsman and keeps his heart in top form by swimming and hiking with his wife and five-year-old son. With his love for sports and an active lifestyle, it is no wonder that he was disappointed when he fell ill and could not participate in Mount Alvernia's fundraising walk held last month, in celebration of its 54th anniversary. “It's a great way to reward your own health and raise funds for [a good cause],” he says. (The walk, which saw 355 doctors and staff raise funds for the Yusof Ishak Professorship Fund, also made it into the Singapore Book Of Records for the “Largest Mass Walk In Ethnic Attire”.)
While his work has its share of heartbreak when patients succumb to their conditions, Soon has also seen many cases where patients recover fully; this fuels him to do whatever it takes to help those under his care. “It's very satisfying when I see my patients well and healthy,” he says. “[My job is] rewarding, because I have many opportunities to make a difference in people's lives.”
At the heart of Mount Alvernia Hospital sits its cardiovascular laboratory
When Dr Soon Chao Yang performs procedures such as coronary angiography (where a catheter is inserted into an artery to release a special dye so X-rays of the blood vessels can be taken) and stent implantation (where a metal tube is permanently inserted into an artery to allow easier blood flow), these are carried out in Mount Alvernia's cardiovascular laboratory. Located on the fourth floor of the main building, the space is used by the hospital's cardiologists and is equipped with one of the most advanced angiographic machines. Outfitted for coronary, vascular and body works, the laboratory is where surgeons perform invasive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, including treatment of acute myocardial infarction. In addition to drug-eluting and bioengineered stents available, staff members are also trained to handle intra-aortic balloon counter-pulsation to provide haemodynamic support for patients with low blood pressure.
ART DIRECTOR/ CLEMENTINUS LIEM
PHOTOGRAPHER/ RONALD LEONG