Against All Odds

Humanitarian, activist, cancer survivor and champion Paralympian Dr William Tan has turned setbacks into opportunities to champion worthwhile causes and raise funds for the needy in Singapore and around the world. He talks about what keeps him going.

BY KAREN TEE
PHOTO JUSTIN LOW

 

T

here are many descriptions that one could use in an attempt to define Dr William Tan. However, the one word that probably suits him best is Superman.

The 58-year-old neuroscientist and resident physician at the National Cancer Centre Singapore has devoted his life to treating and caring for his cancer patients. He has singlehandedly raised over S$18 million for charities and causes in Singapore and around the world by racing in more than 120 marathons and ultramarathons (any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195km) in a wheelchair or handcycle.

Dr Tan, who contracted polio when he was two and is paralysed from the waist down, has been an outspoken advocate for multiple causes since his mid-20s. As a fresh graduate in the early ‘80s, he was frustrated with the various challenges of getting around in a wheelchair at his workplace.

Advocating for persons with disabilities in Singapore became one of his earliest causes.

Later, at the age of 30, he realised he could raise funds and inspire people at the same time by embarking on challenging races.

He recalls: “In 1987, I was saddened to read about the plight of some kidney failure patients who could not afford dialysis treatment in Singapore.

They underwent kidney transplants overseas in developing nations but died from complications.

I wanted to help.” That year, he completed a 16-hour ultramarathon, which raised more than S$62,300 for the National Kidney Foundation.

Since then, he has devoted his time to championing and fundraising for needy causes in more than 10 countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, New Zealand and the United States. He has done this through various athletic endeavours, like skydiving, water-skiing, sailing and, even, climbing a 14-storey building.

His ultramarathon achievements have included wheelchair pushes across the length of New Zealand’s North Island and from Singapore to Penang. Through these efforts, he has raised funds for needy patients in hospitals in Singapore and overseas, as well as for various causes, including a polio eradication programme. Today, Dr Tan holds six marathon and ultramarathon world records, including being the first person in the world to complete a marathon in the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 minutes.

He accomplished this while raising funds for Global Flying Hospitals, which provides free medical services to developing countries.

This July, he was presented the New Zealand- Asean 40th Anniversary Award for his efforts to promote education, sports and people-to-people ties among New Zealand, Singapore and the region. His work in New Zealand includes coaching junior wheelchair athletes and pushing a wheelchair from Wellington to Auckland to raise funds for childhood diabetes.


LESSONS IN RESILIENCE

He continues to embark on these challenges because he hopes to be an inspiration for the next generation. “Through my journey, I hope to encourage and develop leadership and resilience among our young people,” he says.

Dr William Tanʼs fundraising efforts have taken him to far-fl ung corners of the world, including the North Pole, where he completed a marathon in 21 hours and 10 minutes.

He is certainly more than qualified to speak on this. At the age of 51, he was dealt another personal blow when he was diagnosed with end-stage chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (cancer of the blood and bone marrow). “I felt it was such a waste of life – I was only 51 years old and it was too soon to die as I had not done enough for humanity,” he says.

He had planned to live out the remaining nine to 12 months of his life without undergoing treatment because he had personally seen the ravages of chemotherapy on his own patients. However, with his oncologists’ encouragement, he ultimately decided to put up a fight. “I realised this race against cancer is my personal ultramarathon race,” he says.

While undergoing treatment, Dr Tan handcycled more than 80km with his students from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore to raise funds for needy cancer patients in Singapore. He also started getting more active in fundraising for other cancer benefits.

He has been cancer-free for six years but has not stopped taking part in fundraising projects for cancer, lymphoma and leukaemia research. The comeback has been challenging, he acknowledges. “It took hours of training to regain my strength and cardiovascular fitness and I cannot sit in the same aerodynamic position I used to,” he says.

Despite these challenges, Dr Tan raced in the Boston Marathon this year, an achievement that is particularly meaningful to him, as he had done this marathon for seven consecutive years until he was diagnosed with cancer.

Indeed, if a marathon can be used as a metaphor for the journey of life, Dr Tan, with his lifelong involvement in sports and voluntarism, is certainly running a beautiful race.

 


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