It’s a joint effort

March 17, 2014

Dr Tan Chyn Hong

Orthopaedic surgeon Tan Chyn Hong tells Joan Chew how he helps athletes recover in time for competitions

I specialise in treating shoulder and elbow conditions because…

I was inspired by my mentor and teacher, Professor V Prem Kumar, who is the head of the division of shoulder and elbow surgery at National University Hospital (NUH). I see myself as a shoulder, knee and elbow surgeon, with my main area of focus being the treatment of shoulder and elbow problems. I also handle complex knee cases.

The shoulder and elbow are fascinating because…

The shoulder joint is one of the most mobile joints in the human body – think of the ball and socket joint as a golf ball on a tee. Consider how someone moves his shoulders when swimming freestyle. But mobility comes with a price, as it also means more wear and tear and an increased chance of instability. The elbow joint is a hinge joint that bends and straightens. It is more stable but also less mobile than the shoulder. Treating problems of the elbow joint is challenging due to itspropensity for stiffness and loss of motion.

One little known fact about the shoulders and elbows is…

Pain and loss of function in the shoulders and elbows can be very disabling. Imagine having difficulty combing your hair, putting on your clothes and reaching for things on high shelves.

If I were to give an analogy for what I do, I would be…

An astronaut of the human body. I navigate joints using minimally invasive cameras and instruments. I get the job done through tiny incisions made in the skin which cause minimal damage to the surrounding tissues.

A typical day for me starts…

At 6am with the sound of my two-year-old son banging at the bedroom door – he is my alarm clock. Work begins at 7.15am with teaching sessions. Then I check on my patients in the ward and spend the rest of the day in the outpatient clinic and doing surgery. I usually finish work at 6.30pm but if I have an operation in the evening, I may finish at 9pm. I try my best to keep fit by squeezing in time for a swim once a week and yoga on another day in the week.

I have come across all types of cases…

That are broadly divided into the young – below 40 years of age – and the not-so-young – more than 40 years. Young patients tend to suffer from sports injuries such as recurrent shoulder dislocations while older patients tend to have rotator cuff tears or osteoarthritis of the shoulder and elbow joints.

My two most memorable cases were of injuries which were sustained onths before important sports competitions. A 65-year-old man, who was to fire the starting gun in races at last year’s Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Singapore, fractured his shoulder badly after he had a fall. I replaced his fractured shoulder with an artificial joint and he managed to participate in the YOG three months later. In another case, a 16-year-old national martial arts sportsman injured herself badly three months before the SEA Games. I had to operate on her and was worried she would not recover in time, but thankfully she did and represented Singapore in the games.

I love patients who are…

Motivated to get better. I always tell my patients that surgery is only half the battle won. The rest of the recovery process involves working with the physiotherapist to get the best
possible surgical outcome. Patients need to work hard for that.

Patients who get my goat are…

Those who are neither committed nor motivated to get better. If they cannot stick to the rehabilitation process, they cannot expect to have excellent results, which is to return function of the limb or joint to its pre-injury state.

Things that put a smile on my face are…

When patients tell me they are no longer in pain or when I see them going back to playing the sports they love, be it football or line dancing.

One of my favourite questions to them is: “If you could turn back time, would you go through the same surgery again?” It is a priceless feeling when they answer ‘yes’.

It breaks my heart when…

I don’t spend enough time with my family. I often struggle with balancing the needs of my patients with that of my family. I treasure weekends with my family, whether it is going for a swim together, reading to my son his favourite book or making a short trip to the playground near our house.

I wouldn’t trade places for the world
because…

I love what I do. My job as a doctor and surgeon is to heal people, make them feel better and get their health back on track. It does not get any better than that.

My best tip is..

An active lifestyle has many health benefits. Do not let something like a painful shoulder or knee get in your way of pursuing an active lifestyle. Get the ailment treated and keep doing what you love.

Article from The Straits Times (Jul 12, 2014)