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How a Simple Suggestion Helped Forge Strong Ties — 135 Years of Mentor-Mentee Relationships at HKUMed

Professor Khoo Ui Soon (right) helped Dr Esther Yu find her vocation in family medicine

During our 135 years of providing medical education, HKUMed has trained many talented healthcare professionals who have gone on to provide care for their communities. In addition, these medical professionals play an active role in nurturing future generations of healthcare personnel.

Through their interactions, HKUMed’s teachers and students often form mentor-mentee bonds that help them achieve more fulfilling careers.

For pathologist Professor Khoo Ui Soon and Dr Esther Yu (MBBS 2006), a specialist in family medicine, their mentor-mentee relationship began in a problem-based learning (PBL) classroom. Professor Khoo is the Ada MF Chan Professor in Oncological Pathology and Clinical Professor in the Department of Pathology, School of Clinical Medicine and Dr Yu is Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Care, School of Clinical Medicine.

Introduced in 1997, PBL is at the centre of our medical students’ pre-clinical learning. Students learn through multifaceted small group discussions under the guidance of PBL tutors who impart their knowledge from different specialties and clinical experiences.

Dr Yu (third from the right) was intrigued by her conversations with Professor Khoo (right)

A PBL tutor’s suggestion

When they first crossed paths, Dr Yu was a first-year medical student excited to learn from a clinician in the PBL classroom. Little did she know, something transformative was waiting for her.

Tutor for the class, Professor Khoo, said it is her practice when meeting students to evaluate them to try to engage them in deeper conversations. And it was through this that she developed a closer relationship with Dr Yu following a PBL discussion on abortion.

At the time, Dr Yu had recently returned to Hong Kong from Canada for medical school and although accustomed to lively discussion, realised she had not considered the issue previously. “Abortion issues at the time… people weren’t so vocal about pro-life, pro-choice. People were very loose about ethical issues,” she said.

Dr Yu found it unsettling that there were no absolute answers and that everything is relative. However, subsequent one-on-one interactions with Professor Khoo, who aims to always help students broaden their horizons, helped Dr Yu organise her thoughts on these tough ethical questions.

Professor Khoo suggested Dr Yu reach out to some of her contacts and to her surprise, the young medical student seized the opportunity.

The pair reminisced about how their student-teacher relationship began in the PBL classroom

Broadening horizons

Acting on Professor Khoo’s suggestion to meet her contacts at a centre for youth activities, Dr Yu found an alignment between her personal goals and those of the people she met.

Dr Yu was looking for an “ultimate explanation” to give her life reason and convince her to do good. Her exposure to the Catholic faith from the people she met not only settled her thoughts on ethical issues, but also gave the community service she was involved in a deeper meaning.

With her new-found conviction, Dr Yu became clearer about the dreams she wanted to realise. “I felt very comfortable speaking about what I wanted to do and experience,” she said.

Dr Yu’s active pursuit of community service encouraged Professor Khoo to help her student realise those dreams.

Their interactions inspired the introduction of Special Study Modules (SSMs). Similar to today’s Enrichment Year, SSMs provided students with the opportunity to expand their learning beyond the classroom.

Dr Yu joined her first overseas clinical attachment in New Delhi, India

Realising dreams through community projects

In her second year of medical school, Dr Yu reached out to Professor Khoo to ask if her church connections could help her find a placement. Initially, she was looking for somewhere “exotic” like Eastern Europe but Professor Khoo instead suggested India.

Without hesitation, the medical student took up the offer and embarked on a life-changing experience in New Delhi. What she saw in India has remained with her, and she describes the experience as having taught her to have gratitude for what we already have.

When Dr Yu returned to Hong Kong, Professor Khoo suggested: “Next time, why don’t you bring a team and serve the motherland?”

Dr Yu’s answer? “Yes!”

Dr Yu (holding banner) had her first taste of leadership on a service trip in Qiaotou, Guangdong

With three other classmates, Dr Yu led 18 first- and second-year medical students on a service trip to Qiaotou, one of the poorest rural areas in Guangdong province. The experience gave the year-three medical student her first taste of leadership.

“I definitely learned a lot about problem-solving, working with people, trying to accommodate and to make decisions,” Dr Yu said.

While Dr Yu found her path with the aid of her mentor, the relationship also helped Professor Khoo to realise some of her projects. “At the same time, you also helped me a lot because it started the whole series of SSMs,” Professor Khoo said.

As they have fulfilled their professional dreams together, their mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into a more personal relationship.

Professor Khoo understood the hardships Dr Yu was facing as an early-career doctor

Guiding life decisions

Like many medical graduates, Dr Yu faced roadblocks when choosing her specialty and doubted her choice. Again, Professor Khoo, who had once been in that position, helped guide the way.

Through their discussions, Dr Yu realised her strengths lay in conversing and connecting with people, that she liked all specialties and that the compartmentalisation of care was something that disturbed her a lot.

Professor Khoo pointed her towards a then lesser-known specialty in Hong Kong — family medicine. Following her mentor’s introduction, the young graduate familiarised herself with the specialty, finding her “vocation”.

However, a few years into the training, Dr Yu was a little lost amid the high patient load at the Hospital Authority’s general outpatient clinics. Having once doubted her path, she now thrives in a career that combines research, medical education and clinical practice.

In a sign of her faith in her former student, Professor Khoo entrusted her parents to Dr Yu’s care as their family doctor.

When asked to describe their relationship in one word, Professor Khoo said: “More than just a friend. Perhaps, family?” Dr Yu agreed, adding that Professor Khoo is someone that she goes to whenever she is in need. “She is my lighthouse,” Dr Yu said.

The pair agree that mutual respect is important in a mentor-mentee relationship

Maintaining mentor-mentee relationships

Professor Khoo and Dr Yu’s relationship has evolved from a student-teacher relationship into mentor and mentee to what they now describe as family. They explained that these relationships must be nurtured to sustain mentor-mentee bonds.

“There has to be mutual respect for each other,” Professor Khoo said, recommending mentors and mentees avoid taking things for granted. The mentor added that teachers should also “show interest in students for what they are”.

In a similar vein, Dr Yu emphasised being grateful for a mentor’s time. Drawing on her own experience, Dr Yu urges mentees “to be more proactive” because mentors in this field are busy people.

And if a mentee ever feels stressed about following a mentor’s suggestions, Dr Yu recommends being open and sincere about your concerns.

Professor Khoo inspired Dr Yu to become a medical educator

Through this mentor-mentee relationship, Dr Yu not only realised her dreams but was also able to pursue her vocation as she works to improve family medicine in Hong Kong.

And Dr Yu has been inspired to mentor her own students. “I want to see my career as a medical educator, as someone who helps to shape our medical students,” she said. “If they find someone who they can relate to, we can guide them through their medical journeys.”

For Professor Khoo, she continues to meet young aspiring doctors and establish friendships with them to help expand their horizons. “I learn from them too because each one has their own experiences,” she said. “It also makes me feel younger.”

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