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International Women’s Day: Carolyn Lam

Just as how she advises her patients, this cardiologist, researcher and TV doctor reminds herself to savour life’s moments.

A running enthusiast who would feel out of sorts if she were to skip one of her thrice weekly runs, Associate Professor Carolyn Lam is perpetually in the fast lane. In 2011, she established Singapore’s first heart-health clinic for women. Now, she is spearheading the creation of the Asian Diabetes Outcomes Registry, the world’s first global diabetes registry, with special emphasis on heart conditions.

She also runs a women’s clinic at the National Heart Centre Singapore, where she is a senior consultant and clinician-scientist; appears on television as the resident doctor on Body and Soul; and while on maternity leave last year, added a doctorate (in her research speciality of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction) to her accomplishments.

But with a new baby in the picture and more demands on her schedule, she’s finally beginning to practise what she has always preached: “I tell all the women that come to see me that if they don’t take care of themselves, how are they going to take care of others? And I have to remind myself of that. So I make time for my runs and I try to do more yoga. I do identify with everyone else who struggles to make time.”

What is it like to treat predominantly female patients?

It’s us, woman to woman. I love that. There’s also something about being through something they may have been through personally. Like knowing how we are worrying about the children and the family and everyone else, sometimes ahead of ourselves. There’s empathy and identification there. That’s the problem with women, we don’t dare to describe our symptoms and talk openly about the stresses we feel. That makes things worse. Also we are afraid to be labelled as neurotic. So in a way, I give women the freedom to come in — it’s better to be neurotic than dead, so come!

The doctor-patient relationship goes both ways too.

Yes. I’ve met some of the strongest women ever. When you see someone go through an illness, that’s when the real core of the person shines through and the real strength of character shines through. I know it sounds generic, but it’s so true.

The other thing in a practical way is that while I was pregnant, each of them came in and offered me advice on motherhood. Some of the things they said was not to rush it and to enjoy each part of it. Looking back, I do understand that now and maybe I shouldn’t have done that PhD and really focused on motherhood. Their advice to me to live every moment and being a mother is really precious.

From research to treating patients and mentoring others, what do you find most fulfilling?

Could I turn it around a little bit? Ever since baby came into the picture and time has gotten a little shorter, simplifying is so important. I’ve simplified it to people. To me, that’s the most fulfilling. Be it interacting in the patient-doctor or mentor-mentee setting. I’ve realised that that’s what I want to take to my grave. That it could be said on my tombstone that I was a loving person, or that I brought out the best in others. That’s what I would really love.

Your mother is a paediatrician and your father a professor of biological science. You’ve said before that you walked in their shadows. Are you still?

Oh mum and dad! (laughs) I definitely feel I am my own person, but I have a lot from them in me and I’m grateful for that. My dad always dissuaded me from doing a PhD. He’s a PhD holder and he felt that’s a harder life. He couldn’t, for the life of him, understand why, instead of going clinical and into private practice, would I want to live from grant to grant. But I did it and he was there at my PhD ceremony glowing and happy. So it’s funny; life does come full circle. I’m still an academic and in a public hospital.

Read more about Carolyn Lam in the March 2016 issue.