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Encounter with elderly end-stage cancer patient inspires NUS medicine student to pen award-winning poem

SINGAPORE  — During her 10-week general surgery posting to a hospital in 2020, Ms Faye Ng Yu Ci, who was then in her third year of medical training, met an elderly man in his seventies, who was suffering from end-stage colorectal cancer.

Encounter with elderly end-stage cancer patient inspires NUS medicine student to pen award-winning poem
Fourth year NUS medicine student Faye Ng Yu Ci said that even after taking up her medical studies she never lost her passion for literature and poetry.
  • Ms Faye Ng, a fourth-year National University of Singapore (NUS) student, wrote a poem about her encounter with an elderly man suffering from end-stage colorectal cancer
  • Her poem, “A Pink Crease”, was selected from among 23 poems published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this year
  • Ms Ng is the only undergraduate to get the prize since its 2003 inception
  • She is donating all the prize money of US$500 (S$678) to a charity helping needy patients

SINGAPORE  — During her 10-week general surgery posting to a hospital in 2020, Ms Faye Ng Yu Ci, who was then in her third year of medical training, met an elderly man in his seventies, who was suffering from end-stage colorectal cancer.

"I think this uncle had quite complicated feelings about himself. I feel like he was someone who was detached from the ward, the doctors and the rest of the team, but at the same time, he had that desire to be understood.

"I think it's really a privilege to be in this position where patients really trust you with their lives and very vulnerable parts of themselves," the fourth-year National University of Singapore (NUS) Medicine student said in a phone interview with TODAY. 

Their meeting inspired her poem, "A Pink Crease", which details her interaction with the patient, who was initially cold and indifferent towards her, before he finally opened up and showed her his surgical scars. 

I think it's really a privilege to be in this position where patients really trust you with their lives and very vulnerable parts of themselves.
Fourth year NUS medicine student and poet Faye Ng Yu Ci

Her poem has just won the prestigious Prize in Poetry awarded by Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the most widely cited medical journals in the world. The 23-year-old is also the only undergraduate to receive the prize since its inception in 2003. 

She is donating all the prize money of US$500 (S$678), to the NUH Children's Fund, which provides financial assistance to needy patients of the Khoo Teck Puat - National University Children’s Medical Institute (KTP-NUCMI) at the National University Hospital.

Dr Michael LaCombe, associate editor of Annals of Internal Medicine and editor of the poetry section of the journal, said: "Ms Ng's poem was deemed by the judges to be the overwhelming favourite among all of the poems published in Annals in 2021.

"Considering the impressive volume of poetry submissions we receive each year, just being selected to be published is an honour. To stand out among the elite that make publication is a triumph."

Ms Ng, who submitted her poem to the journal last year, was shocked when she received an email informing her that she had won the prize. 

"I just thought that I submitted my poetry, then they published it and that was it. I didn't know that they chose the best poem out of all those published. So I was already very happy," she said. 

When she first received news about her poem, she told her family and friends from medical school. 

A friend from school, Ms Tay Wei Xuan, 23, said that when she first read the poem, she found herself "nodding in agreement at each line". 

"It's a love letter to our patients. Sometimes, it's important to take a step back and ponder: Are we treating the disease or the patient? And indeed, each patient presents to us with their own unique story." 

After Ms Ng completed her general surgery posting, she has since not been able to again meet the "uncle" who inspired her poem. 

But she plans to continue writing about the experiences she has as a medical student and her interaction with other patients. 

"Medicine is something that everyone has different encounters with, either yourself or with relatives. And it can be a difficult and traumatic experience for some, so I hope that my poetry can offer some kind of solace or help patients realise that they are not going through this alone." 

Considering the impressive volume of poetry submissions we receive each year, just being selected to be published is an honour. To stand out among the elite that make publication is a triumph.
Dr Michael LaCombe, associate editor of Annals of Internal Medicine and editor of the poetry section of the journal

Despite having an interest in literature during her time at Hwa Chong Institution, Ms Ng took on more science subjects because she wanted to pursue medicine in university. 

"So entering into medicine (in university), it felt like my world kind of expanded and shrunk at the same time. The shrinking was in the sense that there was much less breadth, I couldn't analyse texts and interpret texts or do comparative analysis.

"But at the same time, it also expanded because there are so many things to learn and remember in medicine... Each organ can branch out to a million things," she said. 

So even after embarking into medicine, Ms Ng never lost her passion for literature and poetry and found a way to merge the two disciplines, by writing poems and commentaries for TODAY, which are largely centred on her experiences with patients and in the hospital. 

Her works have appeared in literary journals and anthologies both locally and abroad, which include publications such as Cordite Poetry and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. She was also the youngest recipient of the top award at the National Poetry Festival.

"It's so curious because when people think about medicine, they think of it as a hard science or very factual and theoretical. But there are so many human things about it and I really wanted to explore it through my writing and experiences." 

Ms Ng has completed a full-length poetry manuscript and has plans to publish her work in the next one to two years. Her collection of poems explore "themes of love, loss and letting go" from the "lens of a young woman growing up in Singapore, and from my interactions with the patients I meet in the wards".

She said: "What I hope to do is to remind doctors that the people that you're talking to on a daily basis are real humans and hope to bring them back to the reasons for why they started practicing medicine." 

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