On a wintry January morning in 2020, a deadly virus stealthily made its way to the borders of the United Kingdom (UK). At that time, nobody expected it to unleash its venom at such scale and speed. By the start of February 2020, COVID-19 has snaked its way to all corners of the world, infecting and killing millions, crippling many countries’ healthcare systems. Singaporeans, in droves, from around the world started flying back to the safety of home.
Right about the same time, a junior doctor from Singapore had just started his foundation training at a hospital in England and found himself at the frontline of the war against COVID-19. When his mother urged him to leave his job and fly home, he said: “Mum, I swore the Hippocratic Oath. I have to stay to take care of my patients”. And with that, 29 year old Dr Ryan Levi Seah stayed on to serve his patients, including those diagnosed with the dreaded virus, and even contracted COVID-19 a few months later. He recovered and swiftly went back to battle on the frontline. It’s been almost two years since he last saw his family.
SGLS: Why did you move to the United Kingdom?
Ryan: I came to the UK eight years ago to read Medicine in London. I am now a junior doctor in my second year of foundation training in the South East of England, specifically the cathedral city of Canterbury situated in Kent county. I am in my final rotation for the year on renal medicine and will be starting specialty training in Obstetrics & Gynaecology (O&G) in October later this year.
SGLS: You graduated at the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why didn’t you come home right away but instead chose to stay in the UK?
Ryan: I stayed in the UK after graduation as I wanted to gain some experience working abroad.
I initially entered the pandemic with a lot of anxiety as COVID-19 was still largely a novel disease then. I was still very much in the infancy of my training as well and had to look after patients who became very ill with the virus in the respiratory ward. Even though my family wanted me to fly back to Singapore as they were worried about me, I decided to stay on to play my part in serving the sick. I can’t leave and abandon my colleagues and patients.
Even though I contracted COVID relatively early during the first wave, I was fortunate enough to develop only very mild symptoms. I had to isolate with my flatmates during this period and they took turns to look after me. I was thankful for having a strong support network. I have fully recovered since then.
SGLS: What was it like to be away from Singapore in the initial years?
Ryan: I have been in the UK for the last eight years. The initial years were a struggle in adjusting to a new environment away from my friends and family in Singapore. It was my first time living away from home and I had to learn how to do a lot of things on my own. There was so much that I did not understand about British culture as well and it took me a long time to understand the local jargon. I also felt homesick, especially over the winter period when the days were short and the nights were long.
SGLS: What do you miss most about Singapore?
Ryan: The thing I miss most is my family. It has been challenging trying to navigate work-life without them being there physically, but we try as much to maintain contact through social media and Whatsapp. The downside of having lived abroad for all these years was that I have missed many significant family events such as weddings and birthday celebrations.
And of course, I miss the food. In recent years when I have returned home, my mum would pick me up from Changi International Airport and we would go straight to Eng’s Wanton Mee in Tanjong Katong. I would order the large bowl of Wanton Mee and a plate of fried wantons for myself. Food plays such an integral role in Singaporean life, and it was only after moving abroad that I appreciated the diversity of the Singaporean palate. In a single day, I could be having a bowl of Mee Soto from Inspirasi Stall at Bedok Hawker Centre for lunch, and later in the evening I would be tucking into Ayam Buah Keluak and Babi Pongteh at Guan Hoe Soon in Joo Chiat. Food was also a way to bring people from various walks of life together, and it has shaped many fond memories of my life in Singapore.
SGLS: You have very strong work ethics. Was this something that came naturally?
Ryan: My mother is a big source of inspiration to me. Growing up, she made it a point to instill very strong work ethics in me. This was evident during her years in advertising and media. Not only did she build an amazing career for herself helming advertising agencies, but she also managed to raise my siblings and me! She always gave me autonomy over my choices in schools and courses, but she was always present and checked in on me to see if I was coping well with my studies and work. I would not have had the opportunities that I have now if not for her. She is not only my mother, she is also my mentor.
Bonus Q: Any special messages for Singapore this National Day?
Ryan: Happy 56th birthday Singapore! Stay strong and well. Together we can overcome.
Interview by Angela May Tan, Column Editor & Writer.
This article is part of a series of interviews in commemoration of Singapore’s 56th National Day. Column Editor, Angela May Tan, interviews inspirational Singaporeans, including those based overseas, to find out how they are coping during this challenging season brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic and tell their stories of courage and resilience.