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Clinical director, National Centre for Infectious Diseases
Department of Infectious Diseases, Tan Tock Seng HospitalVIEW PROFILE
Shawn Vasoo, M.B.B.S. (CM ’13, IDOR ’14), pursued medicine because he was interested in science and working with people. He pursued training in infectious diseases and microbiology in the U.S., unlike most of medical trainees in Singapore. He trained at Mayo Clinic for the opportunity to be mentored by world-renowned experts. He returned to Singapore to practice and had just been appointed clinical director at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases when the pandemic hit. They saw several of the first cases outside of China. Most of the patients requiring hospitalization have been at his hospital. Dr. Vasoo shared his experiences with colleagues at Mayo Clinic as COVID-19 struck the U.S. and learned from Mayo at the same time. “As a global community, we needed to learn and share for the good of patients,” he says. Dr. Vasoo says his training at Mayo Clinic prepared him to face the challenges of his new job.
“I would be poorer if I hadn’t gone to Mayo Clinic and had those experiences. They put me in good stead to faces the challenges in my new job.”
Both of my parents were nurses at some point in their lives, and my dad also was a social worker. My oldest sister is a rheumatologist. I liked science as well as interacting with people. Medicine combined those interests. I thought if I could make the grades, medicine would be a good profession for me.
Not many people from Singapore go elsewhere for postgraduate training. I had worked with a few infectious disease specialists and microbiologists who had trained in the U.S. and noticed they had a keen interest in educating and mentoring, which was different from others I’d worked with. That led me to want to train in the U.S. I did a residency in internal medicine and an infectious diseases fellowship at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Although it was a really big move, I thoroughly enjoyed my five years in Chicago and grew fond of the Midwest. I wanted to remain in the Midwest if possible while I pursued further study. There aren’t a lot of microbiology programs in the U.S.; Mayo’s program is known to be outstanding. Many of the early techniques in microbiology were developed at Mayo Clinic.
I’d heard Robin Patel, M.D. (I ’92, INFD ’95, CM ’96), Mayo Clinic Division of Clinical Microbiology, speak at infectious disease conferences and was very impressed with her. I knew she’d trained in infectious diseases and microbiology at Mayo and directed the Clinical Microbiology laboratory in Rochester and also the Infectious Diseases Research lab. I thought if I could work with her and be mentored by her at Mayo, it would be a fantastic experience.
I’d interviewed at Mayo and was halfway through my interviews at other institutions, when Dr. Patel called and offered me a position while I was waiting for a flight. I was dumbfounded. I called my then-fiance (now wife) and my microbiology mentor at Rush and told them what happened and asked them what I should do (although I knew). The latter told me to say yes, and it was a no-brainer! And that’s what I did.
In my two years at Mayo, I completed a clinical microbiology fellowship and orthopedic infectious diseases fellowship.
I’m a tropical fish. Chicago was cold, but Minnesota kicked it up a few notches.
The people I met at Mayo were awesome and inspiring. They excel in all three shields and exemplify what physicians and scientists should be. What drives research is the transformation of patient care and making a difference to patients. The administrative efficiencies – approvals and day-to-day work – make life so much easier. The mentorship at Mayo is great, and everyone treats each other with respect. Physicians and scientists need to be constantly humbled and grounded. Even those who’ve written national practice guidelines and who are eminent in their areas of clinical practice and research are down to earth at Mayo.
Keep in touch with your mentors, and pay it forward by mentoring others. Also, when people in a room disagree and can’t reach a consensus, put the needs of patients first and the decision will become clear. The patients should drive our efforts and decisions.
While I was training there, my wife and I took a trip to St. Thomas. We turned the heat off in our apartment, and the pipes froze. We came home to our belongings knee deep in water. We learned a valuable lesson!
Along with Dr. Robin Patel were Doug Osmon, M.D. (MED ’86, I ’89, INFD ’92), and Elie Berbari, M.D. (INFD ’98) – both in the Division of Infectious Diseases. They’ve trained generations of young physicians and laboratorians and take a strong interest in them.
Dr. Patel is one of the busiest people I know but spent dedicated time with me at least once a week and never seemed rushed. That shows how she and others at Mayo pour their lives into mentoring. A couple of years ago I was visiting the U.S. and wanted to catch up with Dr. Osmon. He was driving from Minneapolis to Rochester, so I tagged along in the car to give us a couple of hours to talk.
I value those relationships and am thankful for them. I would be poorer if I hadn’t gone to Mayo Clinic and had those experiences. They put me in good stead to faces the challenges in my new job.
Infectious diseases never cease to fascinate me; the specialty sticks its finger in every other discipline unlike any other specialty. Infectious diseases don’t often respect anatomical and geographic boundaries.
Similarly, the world of microbes is fascinating. Emerging infections shape our world and have a tremendous impact on public health.
Kamal Singh, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and microbiologist in Chicago, took a keen interest in me. He could always figure out what was going on with patients. He inspired me to continue my training. Microbiology training strengthens your understanding of infectious diseases.
I’m the clinical director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) in Singapore, appointed by the Ministry of Health. We share similar functions in Singapore akin to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in terms of public health and related administrative aspects. NCID also comprises clinical and operational units for outbreak response, working closely with the Ministry of Health, the adjacent Tan Tock Seng Hospital and other health care institutions in Singapore.
I assumed the position of acting clinical director in June 2019 and became the clinical director at the start of the pandemic in January 2020. I also direct a research lab. It’s been a roller coast ride.
The center has a long history. It started as an old colonial infectious diseases hospital and quarantine facility from 1913. It moved to a new building at the end of 2018 and is a 330-bed facility that handles Singapore’s outbreaks and emerging pathogens. It has a high-level isolation unit for infectious diseases resulting from pathogens of high consequence (e.g., viral hemorrhagic fevers).
I was quite involved in training and setting up protocols at the center. We’ve had a few outbreaks since I started my position mid-2019, including the worldwide measles resurgence and corresponding vaccination exercises , and an imported case of Monkeypox, which none of us had ever encountered and for which we had to reactivate our smallpox vaccination protocols as part of post-exposure prophylaxis for close contacts. We hadn’t vaccinated for it since 1981.
One of my jobs is outbreak preparedness. We had planned a pandemic preparedness exercise for 2020 but didn’t have a chance to implement it before COVID-19 hit. We were one of the initial countries that saw the first cases outside of China. Since then, we’ve cared for the bulk of the cases that needed hospital admission in Singapore.
Learning to manage the virology and biology of the pandemic was one thing. Managing the people and making sure the unit has a coherent plan to meet the challenges of the sheer volume of patients is another thing. It took many people and a lot of coordination. I’ve had to make sure people weren’t fatigued and morale didn’t lag. The year 2020 has been a blur.
I’ve used Dr. Will’s adage about putting patients first many times as I faced difficult decisions during the pandemic.
I consulted with Matthew Binnicker, Ph.D. (CM ’06), director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory in the Division of Clinical Microbiology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, to share our experiences.
Singapore was hit hard by the SARS epidemic in 2003. Most people expected COVID-19 to behave like SARS had – a clear clinical disease with little asymptomatic transmission. We were completely wrong about how COVID-19 would behave. As a global community, we needed to learn and share for the good of patients.
I also consulted with Michael Joyner, M.D. (ANES ’92), Division of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the Frank R. and Shari Caywood Professor, about Mayo’s convalescent plasma program. I was tasked with starting a similar program in Singapore and worked with the hematologists from Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Health Sciences Authority (Singapore) to do that.
In Singapore, we’ve had about 58,000 cases of COVID-19 so far and only 29 deaths (as of November 2020). The degree of community spread has decreased a lot. Now, most of our cases are due to people coming into the country. The highest stress period was March through April 2020. Our hospital has 330 beds and is expandable to more than 500 beds. At one point we had more than 500 patients, who spilled in to the adjoining Tan Tock Seng Hospital. We reopened units in the old hospital. Every day was a battle – the sheer number of patients and evaluations. I slept just a few hours a night and worked seven days a week for months. I don’t care to ever return to those days.
We haven’t had too many deaths from COVID-19 in Singapore. No matter how many patients have died, it’s tragic to witness anyone dying alone, without their families. I wish no one had to go through that.
It’s been really tough, and 2020 has been rather unbalanced with lots of administrative duties and an incredible volume of email. When you work every day without a break, you lose the rhythm of life. Everyone was running at 150 miles per hour. We had no choice but to push through it.
During the worst of the pandemic, all leaves from the hospital were canceled because we needed all hands on deck. Leave restrictions have eased, and my wife and I have taken a couple of staycations to get my mind off of work. I never really get away from it but have learned to balance it better. I try to ensure my staff and the people around me get rest – breaks from work. We watch out for each other. My wife keeps me sane.
My wife and I go for walks and enjoy the simple things in life like a nice meal in a restaurant. Because the situation in Singapore is better now, we can meet in small groups. In normal times, we love to travel, eat great food and read.
Singapore is a multiracial country. In the U.S. people couldn’t place my ethnicity; they thought I was Hispanic or Filipino. And why is my name Shawn, an Irish name?!
There are many ethnicities in my family. Vasoo is an Indian surname. My grandparents were Indian and Chinese, so I speak Mandarin along with many other Asian languages or dialects – Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay. I grew up speaking English. Because I’m Indian, I tried to learn Tamil. I tried learning some Spanish while I was in Chicago, but wasn’t too successful!
See past New Chapter stories here.