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Achieving Balance

Keenly inquisitive, ready for new challenges, ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist and head and neck surgeon Dr. Lau Chee Chong has a fascinating and multi-faceted life that he manages with laughter and energy.

Dr Lau is certainly not your stereotypical doctor. A cool and incisive mind, steady hands, dedication and passion are traits that have served him well in the operating theatre. They also serve him well in other aspects of his full and interesting life. Dr Lau is one of Singapore’s most successful veteran (over-40) fencers, proudly donning the shooting star colours of Singapore’s national team.

“Fencing,” he shares, “is like operating – with a very long scalpel. It’s hard to imagine another sport which can simultaneously challenge your mind, your body, your instincts and your training. Everything needs to come together perfectly in a split second. It’s a fascinating and intense sport”. Dr Lau won an individual bronze medal for sabre in the 2012 Commonwealth Veteran Fencing Championships and anchored the Singapore team to a bronze finish in the team event. He was the 2012 Taipei Open Masters individual sabre champion. He makes time in his busy schedule to train regularly, up to six times a week before a major competition.

Dr Lau is also a keen scuba diver, tennis player and shotgunshooter (game-shooting in Africa and crow-culling in Singapore). Until he suffered a knee accident on the snow slopes, the family also enjoyed skiing trips. But fencing is his favourite. In addition to its personal charms, it is a sport that allows him to do what he loves best - maximise his time with his two daughters – Ysien, 15 and Ywen, 13.

Dr Lau started fencing eight years ago, when Ysien was first enrolled in little-kid fencing classes. “I thought I would keep the girls company and maybe teach them a bit”, he says, “Fencing is a passion I can share with the girls and we spend many happy hours training together, talking strategy and technique and travelling for overseas competitions and training. It’s fabulous family time.”

Both girls earned their spots on the Singapore National Fencing Squad by the time each of them was 12 years old, making them two of the youngest to ever make the team. Many weeks of school have been spent representing Singapore, travelling all over the world to places like Slovakia, the Jersey Islands, Croatia, Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, China, Australia and throughout South-east Asia. Ysien recently fenced in the Asian Youth Games in Nanjing.

This has meant huge sacrifices and a gruelling training schedule for the girls, who strive to maintain both their excellent school grades and “a social life.” On the plus side, fencing has given them discipline, focus, self-confidence and the ability to perform under great pressure. “We are immensely proud of them,” Dr Lau says quietly, “They are really amazing girls and wonderful human beings.”

Aside from the fencing trips, the Laus try to take time to travel and explore the world with their children. However, the girls have reached the point that they just want to stay on home ground, after so much travelling for fencing. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, Ysien replied “I really want a holiday… at home.” When the family does travel, it is often a culinary journey, exploring interesting small towns and villages with interesting food. A recent trip took them to a little fishing port in Japan, where local fishing boats hauled in giant Japanese spider crabs, while another took them up and down the Amalfi coast, sampling the lemons and the limoncello!

True to his Cantonese roots, Dr Lau not only loves to eat, he also loves to cook. Specialising in family favourites such as roast suckling pig, “the best chilli crab in Singapore” (according to wife Cynthia), home-made pasta, charcoal-seared Japanese beef and perfectly steamed fish, many enjoyable hours are spent in the markets and the kitchen.

Besides sports and cooking, Dr. Lau has many other interests and hobbies, ranging from collecting unusual fish and birds to designing his own pond filtration system and visiting nurseries for exotic plants. So how does he manage to find time for it all? He attributes this to his wife Cynthia, to whom he has been married for 18 years: “She’s the real reason why I have time to do the work that I love, the activities that interest me and still spend a lot of time with my wonderful family. Without her, it would have been impossible to find the time. She does almost everything for me. She was a corporate lawyer when we first met. Five days before our wedding, we decided that she should stop legal practice to spend more time with me. She is a great wife and a great mother, very capable, charming and selfless; the girls and I always come first for her. She’s amazing.”

Was maintaining work-life balance a conscious decision he made years ago? Dr Lau related a conversation that prompted him to make that decision to lead a balanced life. “During my early years in Mount Elizabeth, I met a senior doctor who gave me this piece of advice: ‘Don’t spend your whole life working. You must spend time for yourself and your family. Experience as much of life as you can. Do things that you enjoy. Don’t wait until you “retire” to do what you want. It might be too late.” He said that he had spent all his time working very hard and one day found out that he had cancer. Then he tried to catch up on what really mattered, but he no longer had the time or the health to do so. He spent his final years travelling around the world. I will always remember him.

"I feel that my greate st achievement is to have the knowledge and the skills to make a real difference to people’s lives.

“That conversation really made me stop and think. I’ve seen sick people who die regretting that they made lots of money, but didn’t spend time with their families or making themselves happy. And I have friends with grown-up children, who feel that they spent so much time working and preparing their retirement funds that they missed the whole growing up process, a huge chunk of their children’s lives.”

Another reason why Dr Lau can enjoy a balanced lifestyle is that his specialty – ENT – is one of the surgical disciplines where there tend to be fewer emergencies. He says, “Most of the cases are elective - I can schedule patients for surgery, leaving time for myself and for my family.” The initial decision to specialise in this field was “because I think five holes in the head is quite interesting,” he chuckles. From his early ENT days (working in London at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the Royal National Throat Nose & Ear Hospital) and after 23 years of private practice at Mount Elizabeth (Orchard), ENT is still his dream specialty. He walks in every day with a smile, thirsty for more.

Dr. Lau does extensive reading and also dedicates time to attend medical conferences to update himself. “I’m a student for life,” he says. ENT is also a wonderful specialty for a man with an inquisitive intellect. “ENT is fascinating because there are so many tremendous advancements being made in this field,” says Dr. Lau. “When I first joined ENT, I was about 25 and things were so different. The changes are so dramatic. Some of the surgical instruments that I first used are now housed in a special cabinet for “medical antiques” in his clinic. Nowadays, much of the ENT surgery is done using endoscopes. It’s very unusual now to make a cut in the face or under the lip as we used to do.

“We actually have an advantage over the other surgeons who use endoscopic surgery where they make only a few small holes in the skin. Our holes are ready made; we already have two big nostrils, two ear canals and a mouth to work with! In fact, in recent years, we have used these convenient holes to endoscopically access the base of the skull and through the skull base, the brain.”

Endoscopic or minimallyinvasive skull base surgery may be done to remove both benign and cancerous growths, and abnormalities on the underside of the brain, the skull base, or the top few vertebrae of the spinal column. Of course, when we reach the skull base or the brain, we work together with a neurosurgical colleague.

Recent advancements have been made to improve the treatment and quality of life for patients with head and neck cancers. Says Dr. Lau, “In the past, we had to do a lot of debilitating surgery on the larynx and the throat by splitting the skin in the face and the neck. Nowadays, we can operate using the endoscope or microscope through the mouth to approach deep into the oral cavity and larynx.

“There have been vast improvements in chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which are giving patients a better cure rate than the chemotherapy and radiotherapy of the past. In increasingly more cases, we have been able to avoid all surgery together. The new generation of chemotherapy and radiotherapy also have reduced side effects. The patient’s quality of life is therefore much better.

“There are also a lot of new advancements in the area of ear implants for people with hearing loss, such as cochlear implants and middle ear implants. This is an area of rapid advancement.”

Like the other aspects of his life, Dr Lau is dedicated and passionate about the welfare of his patients and his medical practice. When asked what his greatest achievement in his career was, thus far, he paused for thought before relating a recent incident. “I have a patient from Indonesia. Ten years ago she suffered from cancer of the larynx. She had radiotherapy then and she was cured. About six months ago, she came back to see me again. She had a little swelling in her larynx. She had a recurrent cancer and this time, she needed major surgery to remove the larynx. But the patient could not afford the surgery.

“Without the surgery, she would succumb to the cancer very quickly. So I operated and I waived my charges. I also asked the anaesthetist to reduce his charges, which he generously did. She’s recovering well.

“I feel that my greatest achievement is to have the knowledge and the skills to make a real difference to people’s lives, the ability to offer them complete honesty, to save lives or just to make them feel a little better. These are moments of real happiness for me. And if I am in a position where I can waive my charges or reduce them to help those who are truly in need, then really, I’m the lucky one.” And he smiles.

"During my early years in Mount Elizabeth, I met a senior doctor who gave me this piece of advice: ‘Don’t spend your whole life working. You must spend time for yourself and your family. Experience as much of life as you can. Do things that you enjoy. Don’t wait until you “retire” to do what you want. It might be too late ."

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Our Singapore ENT clinic specialises in the end-to-end management of all ear, nose, and throat conditions while keeping the best ENT practices in mind.

We offer comprehensive care for the diagnosis and treatment of simple and complex ENT conditions ranging from allergies, ear infections and tonsillitis, to hearing disorders and ENT cancers in both adults and children. Our general and paediatric ENT services also include sinus and snoring surgery to treat obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), sinusitis, breathing disorders and congenital abnormalities.
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