As a ballet student, Ms Marabelle Heng often injured her feet and toes. She saw a podiatrist who treated her feet and bloodied nails, and cared for them until they healed. The podiatrist left a deep impression on her but she never thought that these visits would eventually shape her career decisions.
When she was looking for a job after graduating from university, she chanced upon an advertisement offering a podiatry scholarship from Singapore General Hospital, one of the institutions under the SingHealth Group. She applied, received a scholarship and earned a Bachelor of Podiatry from the University of South Australia.
Podiatrists treat foot disorders including skin and nail pathologies, have knowledge of biomechanics and practise wound care. Common problems include flat feet, heel pain, ingrown toenails, fungal infection, warts, corns and calluses. They also manage foot injuries, infections and deal with post-operative management of the lower limb.
Among the various types of patients whom Ms Heng sees, her biggest concern is for diabetic patients as they are at risk of foot complications and amputation.
She says: “Some of them do not seek treatment early enough, brush aside tell-tale signs or treat themselves at home. Many diabetic patients have chronic wounds in their lower limbs.
“It is frustrating when the wounds either deteriorate or remain static despite treatment. We are usually elated when we see even one wound healing as it gives us a sense of satisfaction and joy.”
“To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always — this is our work.” The oft-quoted phrase among health-care professionals resonates with Ms Heng.
Though most patients will recover, there are some who have a chronic condition and may never be healed.
“So as health-care practitioners, we manage their condition and provide assurance, care and comfort. I think serving patients from the heart is as important as having clinical knowledge,” she says.
Ms Heng believes that patients can tell whether practitioners are sincere about their treatment and care. She remembers a bedridden patient who lost all motor function and suffered frequent infections of the toes. As there was little success with conservative management, her team had to remove the nail in an avulsion procedure. Thereafter, the patient didn’t get infected again.
She says: “Even though the patient did not have full cognition, he could tell when I came around and would make an effort to respond to whatever I said. Once, he mustered some muscle strength to hold my hand. His simple gesture of saying ‘thank you’ touched me.
“Even though his toenail problem was a small one compared to his overall disability, he fully appreciated what I had done for him. This still remains one of my fondest patient memories.”
In Singapore, there is still a lack of awareness of the podiatrist’s scope of practice. As a result, people do not know where to get help for their foot problems. But this will change with time as podiatrists establish themselves in the local health-care scene, working alongside other health-care professionals such as doctors and nurses.
Podiatrists work closely with people of all ages and from different walks of life, so having good communication and people skills are a start. Other important qualities are compassion, wisdom, an eye for detail and an inquisitive mind.
For those who want to follow in her footsteps, she says that podiatry is an exciting and growing profession, which offers a great deal of opportunities to people who want to take up the challenge.