Irene Toh

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Growing up as a teenager watching her favourite football team, Manchester United, play on TV, Irene Toh found herself inspired. “When players got hurt, someone would run out and put them back on their feet,” she says. “I saw how important a physiotherapist was and I wanted to be that person.”

She scored her goal by earning a diploma and master’s degree in physiotherapy. Today, the 38-year-old is a principal physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), the country’s largest tertiary acute care hospital, where she helps people recover from injuries and surgery.

Toh also pitches in elsewhere – she has been an overseas volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) for more than 10 years. In Vietnam, she taught post-arthroplasty (total knee and hip replacement) physiotherapy and conducted workshops for physiotherapists from 2003 to 2004. She worked on the Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Specialist Training Project in Cambodia from 2011 to 2014 to train 558 local doctors, nurses and physiotherapists at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

Among the trainees was Song Sit, president of the Cambodian Physical Therapy Association, who has known Toh since the 2012 SIF project in Phnom Penh. He says: “Besides learning and work benefits, Irene has become my close friend. We support each other. We share a common goal to plan Cambodia’s physiotherapy sector. From her, I’ve learnt to have a positive attitude.”

In late 2016, Toh will return to Phnom Penh to help develop the curriculum of a physiotherapy degree conversion programme with the University of Health Sciences. Its first batch of students will be enrolled by the end of the year. Toh plans to take six months of unpaid leave and spend time picking up the Khmer language – another feather in her cap.

1 What do you remember most from your first visit to Vietnam as a volunteer?

Compared with the Vietnamese physiotherapists I was sent to train, I was considered very junior. But they had no experience in post-arthroplasty care, and I was there to pass on my knowledge and help them develop skills, so I simply had to overcome my lack of confidence. The Vietnamese were eager to learn new things and were very warm – some of the older nurses liked to give me lots of hugs out of affection. That encouraged me a lot!

2 How have cultural differences influenced the way you relate to your counterparts abroad?

The Vietnamese are quite independent and have had more exposure in terms of travelling to countries like France on similar work exchanges.

I learnt that making the effort to build rapport with them was an important first step before getting to business, so we connected better. The Cambodians are not as exposed to these opportunities but instead have received help from experts around the world, such as Australia, Japan and the United States. They are engaged and interested in improving their skills. They also appreciate structure and explanations of rationale for tasks and timelines. I have to plan my lessons far ahead. Even in meetings, they appreciate me stating the next steps required.

3 What are some key takeaways from these cross-cultural collaborations?

I’ve learnt to be very adaptable to different working styles. You have to be quite open to what that culture prefers, so it’s easier to manage expectations. Programmes like degree conversion need to be sustainable in the long run, so you have to guide the participants to be independent and to self-manage it, instead of just throwing your knowledge at them. They own the programme, not you. I feel a great joy and a sense of achievement when a programme is successfully completed. I know then that I’ve put in my best effort, which is when the locals continue to run it themselves.

I can see the ripple effect starting – those we trained have learnt better clinical competency and proper documentation processes and some of them have now gone on to be trainers too, running their own workshops within their hospital.

I’ve learnt that the Cambodians work hard to earn more to improve their lives, yet they know how to enjoy the important things in life, like family and friends, and to take it easy. They have seen difficult times, which have made them resilient and more accepting of failure. People make do with what they have and it’s okay. Singaporeans sometimes forget to enjoy life and we take failure very hard. In this aspect, we should learn to be more like the Cambodians.

Anyone who wants to volunteer overseas should do it. Even when you think you have no knowledge to share, you’ll realise you have a lot more resources compared to others. And you get so much back. It doesn’t matter if you start small. Build on it.

4 Having volunteered over a period of more than 10 years, what motivates and inspires you to continue giving your time?

One physiotherapist, Suth Seiha, was a keen and fast learner who understood physiotherapy concepts well. Unlike several of his peers, he did not get to attend the Advanced Diploma Programme with SGH in Singapore.

However, he took the initiative to improve his command of English on his own so he could gain more from our workshops and teaching materials, which had both English and Khmer text. His English improved so much that he later became the translator for most of my other workshops.

Seiha has received his Advanced Certificate of Physiotherapy and is now known in his community as being skilled in musculoskeletal physiotherapy. He’s doing well at his hospital and is also working part-time at the International Committee of Red Cross in Phnom Penh. I’ve also encouraged him to pursue the physiotherapy degree conversion programme.

My friendships with Cambodians like Seiha have made me aware that they are very hungry for learning. This made me realise how fortunate I have been and this has motivated me to share my skills and knowledge with others in return. It also encourages and affirms me, as a humble human being, to share what I’m most passionate about – physiotherapy.

I collaborated most with Song Sit on the degree conversion programme. He has great insights into what is needed and is able to tell me how best to get things done in his country. Sometimes, you feel discouraged with the teaching and knowledge gaps. But he is passionate about physiotherapy and has been able to convince more people to take part in these programmes.

Without Song Sit, I think this project would have taken much longer to start. He wanted this discipline to become more recognised in his country and reach international standards. It is such people who make you love what you do even more.