Singapore’s most well-known plastic surgeon Dr Woffles Wu is a man of many facets.
As an NUS undergraduate during the early 1980s, he frequented discos with his varsity mates, spent weekends in car workshops with fellow sports car fanatics, and also found the time to paint as well as sing in the medical school band.
“It was the disco era,” declared the 51-year-old, “the time of bell bottoms, psychedelic prints and tight V-line-shaped shirts.”
However, Dr Wu – a regular at some of the hottest night clubs then, such as My Place, The Club and Chinoiserie – was also dead serious when it came to work. As a houseman, he often toiled until the wee hours of the morning, surviving on just one or two hours of sleep.
There were only four public hospitals in Singapore during that period and the 1980s was a time of rapid growth. Hospitals were often operating at full capacity to cope with the rising number of patients from new towns nearby.
“The work culture was different then,” recalled Dr Wu. “At that time, we had to look after the entire ward. Now, doctors and nurses are given just a portion of the ward to look after. We worked really hard. But I didn’t hear anybody complaining. We all adapted, learnt to cope with stress and I think the doctors who came out of that fire were much harder and much better.”
An artistic person, whose creative pursuits include film-making – he was executive producer and co producer of the award-winning local feature film Singapore Dreaming – Dr Wu had always been interested in plastic surgery.
That required a surgical degree, which he later obtained whilst working at the former Toa Payoh Hospital. He decided to try paediatrics first, but found it difficult to treat children with terminal diseases.
“You see them every week and you develop an attachment and empathy for them. Then six months later, they still die. It was a bit depressing,” he said. “I felt that plastics suited my temperament better. It was a different way of helping children, such as those born with congenital deformities. To be able to restore some normality to their faces and their lives, it’s greatly satisfying.”
Dr Wu remembers his early days as a doctor with great fondness, describing Toa Payoh Hospital as “old-fashioned and homely”. It later became part of the new Changi General Hospital in 1998.
“It had a very nice spirit and all the doctors knew one another. It was smaller, there was more interaction and you learnt more. Those were the days when we really looked forward to going to work.”
He moved to Singapore General Hospital (SGH) in 1989, where he worked as a plastic surgeon for 12 years before setting up his own practice. In 1990, he won the Young Surgeon of the Year award for his groundbreaking research on nasal anatomy. He also gained international recognition for creating a patented non-surgical face-lift in 2002, known as the Woffles Lift.
Dr Wu believes that his NUS education played a significant part in leading him to where he is today. In fact, some of his varsity mates are also renowned in their fields, such as cardiologist Michael Lim, eye surgeon Marc Tay, as well as Dr Ting Choon Meng, who invented a patented cardiac watch.
It was also where he formed many lasting friendships. The medical students were segregated from the other faculties, as the medical college and its hostel were based at SGH at that time.
“It was a tightly knit community and my undergraduate life was very full and fulfilling,” he said. “I would do it all again if I had to.”
From the Alumnus Magazine Jan 2012