“All my classmates have degrees in different disciplines but most also have a background in biology. I don’t so I have to work harder. I didn’t know how tough it was until I got here,” says the 26-year-old physics graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Tough or not, he is hell-bent on making it.
Life was comfortable and uneventful until he was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) when he was 12. It is a rare disease where scar tissue grows on the kidneys which filter waste from the blood.
He found out about his condition by accident, when he feigned a stomach ache one day. “I didn’t feel like going to school because I didn’t like Chinese class,” says the former student of St Stephen’s and St Joseph’s Institution.
Further tests confirmed he had FSGS.
Mr Mark Goh endured years of painful treatment for kidney disease until a successful transplant at 18, with a kidney from his mother. Studying medicine with no biology background is tough, but he is determined to make it. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARK GOH
“From Secondary 1, I started taking a lot of medication, especially steroids. I developed Cushing Syndrome,” he says, referring to the disorder caused by high levels of cortisol in the body. “I had a moon face, I was puffy and felt unfit,” adds Mr Goh, whose parents were primed for the gradual deterioration of their son’s kidneys.
He was regularly subjected to blood tests, biopsies and haemoglobin injections to his stomach.
Although he dutifully endured the treatments, many of which were painful, he admits to feeling resentful. “It’s not like having the cough or flu when you get fine after being given medication. I was going to the doctor’s every month and I didn’t get well,” he says.
Professor Yap Hui Kim, head and senior consultant of the division of paediatric nephrology at the National University Hospital (NUH), has been treating Mr Goh since he was 12.
She says: “The treatments were very difficult for anyone to go through, let alone a child. But he was a very special patient; for him, it had never been a no. It helped that he has supportive parents.”
At the end of his first year at Catholic Junior College, Mr Goh started peritoneal dialysis. The procedure involves introducing a sterile liquid through a catheter surgically placed in his peritoneal cavity to clean the blood and remove toxins and extra fluids.
“I really didn’t want to do a transplant because I didn’t want to put my mum at risk,” he says, referring to research which puts the risk of dying from donating a kidney at one person in 3,000. “But she really wanted to. We decided to go ahead after praying. I owe my life to my mum.”
Asked why he did not gun for medical school earlier, he says: “When you have a chronic illness, you really don’t know what’s in store. When I was studying for the A levels, there were times when I asked myself what the point of studying was. I didn’t even know what would happen to me one year down the road.”
Then 21, he was the youngest of the 13 Singapore transplant athletes that year, and took part in three events: 100m and 200m races, and badminton. Last year, he again represented Singapore at the 2017 WTG in Malaga, Spain, taking part in the 400m event.
He has, he says, made many friends there. “NUH took really good care of its patients; we became really good friends. It made going to the hospital less of a chore, and more like a meet-up,” he says.
His reason for doing so is simple.
“I wanted to set an example for the younger ones. What’s important is that they have people they can look up to. By doing a good job with the camp, others hopefully would also be encouraged to step up,” says Mr Goh, who also rallied several young transplant patients to train and take part in the WTG last year.
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“He’s always ready to face any challenge, even getting into medical school with no biology (background) which is a big deal,’ she says of her patient who had to clear a tough entrance test to get into Duke-NUS.
Although the going is tough, Mr Goh feels he is where he belongs.
“I had a corporate job but I felt I was just making money for other people,” says Mr Goh, who worked for several months as a data analyst in a company specialising in diagnostic imaging.
“But when I become a doctor, I will be helping people directly.”