SEE PHOTOS: This high-flying scholar could have had an easy life. Yet, she chose the path less travelled. Dr Wong Ting Hway inspires us all
It’s almost midnight. In Kuito, central Angola, a baby is dying of dehydration. Dr Wong Ting Hway labours to insert the intravenous drop but the baby’s skin is so dry it feels like plasticine.
Just as she gets the needle in, a bomb goes off. Ting Hway jumps. Luckily, the nurse who’s holding the infant jumps too… And the drip stays in. The baby lives.
Not quite a normal day in the life of a Singaporean doctor. But then, this is no ordinary Singaporean doctor.
The honour roll of Her World’s Young Woman Achiever of the Year reads like that of an over-achiever: Doctor, linguist, poet and humanitarian worker.
After graduating from Cambridge, she joined humanitarian aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) to work in Third World countries and was sent to Angola.
In September 2002, she became the first Singaporean to join the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). She was on a mission to Nepal to assess the impact of civil war on medical services and give support to health posts and hospitals.
It’s a list that would make most of us look on with admiration but Ting Hway is very matter-of-fact about her accomplishments. Ask her, for example, what life amid gunfire was like and you get a simple answer: “Sometimes explosions sounded like they were very near us. But I got used to them.” She once woke up from sleep wondering if the noise that woke her up was thunder or bombing.
LIFE LESS ORDINARY
Sitting at a café lounge of a hotel – a situation as remote from war-torn Angola as you can imagine – Ting Hway is as animated as the anecdotes she is recounting.
She dismissively waves off her achievements as “quite ordinary lah”, her hand gestures adding an off-beat dimension to her personality. Yet, there is also a certain delicateness in her demeanour as she ponders over the barrage of questions.
It’s hard to imagine this 31-year-old (who’s in a floral shift today) sleeping on flea-infested mattresses in rat-ridden rooms and trudging through Nepalese mountains to get to villages accessible only by foot, remote areas affected by the conflict.
But continue talking to her and you’ll realise that she has a different perspective on life than most Singaporeans. “Everyone finds their own challenges in life. I found mine in humanitarian work,” she states practically. “There wasn’t anything special that sparked it off. Even before I went to medical school, I’d see humanitarian workers on TV and go: ‘Oh yeah, I’d want to do that.’”
As a teenager, she went to the Salvation Army Home for the Aged to help feed the elderly. There she learnt the importance of speaking different languages and dialects.
Already fluent in French, the medical undergrad started picking up Arabic in 1992. Her Palestinian tutor kick-started her first solo volunteer project by putting her in touch with an old friend who ran a rehabilitation centre in the West Bank.
There, she met other volunteers and realised “there’s an entire world of them out there”.
Once lit, that spark never went out. Ting Hway graduated from medical school and returned to Singapore to work as a doctor in 1999. But by then, she already knew what she really wanted to do so.
In 2001, she joined MSF as a nutrition doctor and was posted to Kuito, a town roughly the size of Toa Payoh but swamped with an estimated 150,000 people fleeing the civil war.
OF BABIES AND BOMBS
On her first day of work, she saw a child die. It was the first of hundreds of people she would see succumb to infection, malnutrition, gunshot wounds and landmines.
“When the people fleeing the conflict arrived, most had nothing but a tattered shirt and a bundle of whatever they could grab. If they were lucky, they had a pot to put water in and cook… And maybe one extra sarong. Some fled without taking anything,” she remembers.
“The stories we heard were often similar. Troops came, I ran away, I got separated from my child/wife/family, I escaped into the wilderness, I ate wild leaves…”
It was tough at times. She remembers a man who once wandered into the feeding centre camp with his five-year old son. The boy, Constantino, was covered with blisters from severe protein malnutrition.
Constantino responded to his milk feedings over the next few days. One morning, he asked for a car ride, “just to know what it is like”. The relief workers promised him the ride once he got better. But Constantino died that night.
Ting Hway found out only after the morning after: “I thought of his father who had left his dying wife behind and had buried his other son on the way to the camp.
“I thought of him walking in the darkness to the hospital mortuary the night before with Constantino. Of Constantino, whom we had promised to take for a car ride once he was better. Tears ran down my cheeks and I didn’t care who saw me.”
Deaths in the feeding centres were not her only fears. Last March her friend and co-worker Ricardo Munguía, an engineer, was killed during a mission in Afghanistan. “Up until then, the casualties we heard about were just names on a piece of paper, a friend of a friend’s, a statistic. That was the first time it was someone I knew,” she says.
She refused to allow the emotions to get her down. “Sometimes, despite your best efforts, people still die. And this happens no matter where you are,” she reasons. “There’s risk no matter what you do in life. If it happens, it happens.”
And it did. Just as she was returning home after her Nepal mission, she came down with paratyphoid fever. She was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital for a week.
“It’s nothing compared to what my colleagues went through during the Sars period. If you ask my doctor, he would probably say I was never close to dying, but I wrote out my will. I didn’t do one before that because I didn’t have enough money,” she quips.
She jokes about it now but her parents, Ming Keong and Irene, were worried: “We told her not to go those places and pick up those exotic diseases!”
Nevertheless, they say proudly: “Ting Hway has always been very focused and determined in her pursuits.”
After 10 months in Nepal and four years after she started relief work, Ting Hway is finally home. She returned last July to be an “ordinary doctor”.
She admits it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “When I resigned years ago, everyone said, ‘You’re very brave to go to all these places’. When I told my friends I was coming back, they said: ‘You’re very brave to come back. You’ll be taking instructions from people younger than you.’”
That, however, was a pill she was prepared to swallow. “I read an article by a British doctor who was a consultant surgeon for 15 years when he took a break. When he wanted to go back to operating, he signed up for a re-training attachment in a big hospital.
Currently a medical officer with the National Healthcare Group, she hopes to complete her specialist training so she has surgical skills to offer when she decides to go back to humanitarian or development work someday.
She feels nostalgic whenever she receives emails and letters from ex-colleagues, but it’s a regular life she now seeks. Despite the mundane trivialities like paying her bills, there are also the simple luxuries that she appreciates such as ice-cream, chocolate and reading anytime she wants to without having to wait for daylight.
And surprisingly for one who has seen the darker side of life, she doesn’t go on a preachy spiel about spoilt Singaporeans taking their peaceful lives for granted. “After hearing people worry about life and death for a few years, it cheered me up to hear my friends worry about inconsequential things,” she says.
“It’s refreshing to be back where life is good enough to worry about things of little consequence. At least you know things of consequence have been taken care of.”
The overachiever sounds almost too good to be true, but she downplays any suggestion that she is.
“Everything I’ve done is very ordinary. It only seems extraordinary because I’ve done them in extraordinary circumstances.”
So exactly how ordinary is Wong Ting Hway? “I’m just like anyone else. I have bad handwriting like all doctors supposedly do. I can’t be that talented either. If I were, my patients wouldn’t laugh at me when I speak Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay or Hindi!” HW
1990: Won the Raffles Top Scholar Award. Bagged the President’s Award for Girl Guides the next year. Was also National Junior College Orchestra concertmaster
1992: Won the Lee Kuan Yew Science and Mathematics Prize. Also won the Cambridge-Shell Commonwealth Scholarship for three years
1993: Was president of the Cambridge University Malaysia and Singapore Association
1994: Volunteered with Medical Group Missions in Ecuador with her sister, Ting Yean. Over the next five years, she volunteered in Zimbabwe, India, Nepal, Bethlehem and Thailand
1996: Co-founded the Cambridge Southeast Asian Forum, a discussion group on Southeast Asian issues. Also received a Cambridge certificate in Spanish
1999: Returned to Singapore after completing her housemanship in the UK and worked as a medical officer
2000: Left Singapore to work in Argentina. Her poems and short stories are published in Capsule–A Dose of New Singaporean Writing
2002: Volunteered as a doctor in the Brazilian Amazon before joining MSF as a nutrition doctor on a mission to Kuito, Angola. While in Brazil, she picked up Portuguese
2003: Was the first Singaporean to join the International Committee of the Red Cross, working as a medical coordinator in Nepal