Orthodontist DR CATHERINE LEE proves that it is possible to combine a successful professional practice with charitable outreach work. Verne Maree caught up with the philanthropist at her stunning new penthouse clinic in Singapore’s financial district.
What prompted you to move your busy orthodontic practice from Orchard to here?
To me, this feels like an iconic Singaporean place that I can identify with – and also, after 17 years at Camden Medical Centre I wanted a change. This building sits in the heart of the historical financial district. We overlook the Fullerton Bay Hotel and Collyer Quay, the original pier where the early immigrants landed. I find that idea quite romantic!
I’m blown away by the interior décor – especially those sea animal sculptures! What was the inspiration?
As you can see the sea from here, I chose the ocean as my design theme, and worked with my builders to make the most of the light and the seascapes. The blue reflects the sea; the white reflects the sunlight, and light wood introduces elements of nature. I wanted to evoke a happy and relaxed seaside location. So far, all my patients like it! As for the sculptures, I’m fond of sea creatures and they go with the theme. On a visit to Bali, I came across this sculptor and loved a starfish that he’d done; so I commissioned a bigger one, together with a seahorse, and had them shipped across. Ergonomic efficiency is important to me: it must be easy for everyone to move around. Where I treat my adult patients is actually part of my office, and the children’s area is on the other side. And now that we’ve welcomed a general dentist to our team – Dr Jennifer Lee, from Sydney – there’s space for her, too.
What brought you back to Singapore after studying and working abroad for so long?
I left New York with every intention of joining my previous team in Sydney. On the way, however, I stopped over in Singapore and met up with some of the leading surgeons in my field. They invited me to give a talk, one thing led to another, and I was asked to consider coming back here for good. I must say that I liked the idea of returning to Asia and spending a bit more time with my family, especially as my parents are now retired in Malaysia. It worked out well, as you can see! I made that commitment, and now I feel quite permanently rooted here.
How do you combine your cleft palate work with mainstream orthodontic work?
For me, it’s always a joy to see cleft children and other children receiving orthodontic treatment side by side. In our Singapore clinic, my team and I try to make each patient feel as normal as possible, and just like any other children. Already, more than a third of your patients are adults.
Now that you’re in the CBD, do you expect that sector to continue to grow?
First of all, I’m delighted to say that all our child patients have moved here with us! Treating kids is fun; they’re really cute, and it’s easy to impress them with the need to have the treatment done. Because they’re more adaptable, they will use or wear whatever you give them. They listen well, and they like to be rewarded.
For an adult patient, orthodontic changes can be slower and more difficult to take effect. Unlike children, their tissues have stopped growing, their bones have hardened and adaptation is slower. But I like treating adults, too, and we’ve achieved some incredibly gratifying results. Some of the adults who come to me think they’re a lost cause, and it’s not just about looks. In some cases, they’re unable to eat properly, have been enduring chronic joint pain and may even suffer from psychological problems. For them, orthodontic treatment can be life-changing experience.
Apart from these sweeping views, what else is new in your practice?
There has been clear and definite change in my approach to my work, meaning the way I want to do orthodontics. From the traditional braces technology of general orthodontics, we are moving to the new and rapidly advancing world of 3D technology – clear aligners that effectively move teeth without braces. This technology has been making steady and significant progress over the past 10 to 15 years, and I think it will one day replace not only traditional braces, but also other traditional orthodontic appliances.
Apart from being the regional spokesperson for Invisalign in Indonesia and Malaysia, I also test-pilot the company’s products before launching. I’m really enjoying this involvement in product development. It’s a great opportunity to work out of my comfort zone and to think creatively – it’s the fun part of my work! I like to keep up with new technology, to reach for new frontiers.
Though Invisalign was originally more for adults, we’re now also working on products for teenagers and children, developing products that influence the growth pattern of the jaw. Most excitingly, I’m looking for ways in which to use this technology to benefit my cleft children, too.
You’ve just come back from one of your regular field trips, working with a charity that helps underprivileged cleft children and their families in Indonesia. Tell us a little more about your involvement with the Cleft Care Indonesia Foundation (CCIF).
More than ten years ago, I was approached by the mother of one of the cleft children I’d treated in my practice. She asked me to join her in helping to relieve the misery of cleft children from disadvantaged families in East Java, where she was from, and where the incidence of cleft is unusually high. Having herself experienced the helplessness of not being able to feed her child, she wanted to do something for them.
Today, CCIF is run by a group of international volunteers and four full-time local staff. Its main objective is to locate underprivileged, untreated cleft children from city slums, small villages and remote areas of East and Central Java, and then to support them throughout their growing years with the necessary surgeries, together with educational, nutritional and other related programmes.
In the first three years, I spent quite a lot of time out in the field, to set up the infrastructure and recruit staff. Nowadays, I go there twice a year to assess performance, give advice and so on. Fundraising is of course vital for this work to continue, and anyone who feels moved to contribute in some way can find out more on the website (cleftcareindonesia.org).
When you do have some free time, what do you like to do?
I like to catch up with friends, watch a movie or read a book on self development. And, as my siblings are all over the world, I am physically the closest to my parents in Malaysia and I like to spend time with them. Although I enjoy visiting different countries, I’m not the kind of person to go and sit on a beach. Instead, I find more fulfillment in engaging with a country and relating to its people through my true passion – my work.
- Born in Malaysia and grew up largely in Adelaide. Studied Dentistry in Adelaide.
- Worked in Sydney at Westmead Hospital and then Healthcare Fund’s (HCF) first dental group clinic for five years. Accepted into post-graduate specialist orthodontic studies at New York University.
- Chosen for sub-specialty training in cleft and craniofacial surgical orthodontics, working with a world-renowned team of orthodontists and plastic surgeons at NYU Medical Center.
- Joined a cleft-craniofacial team working as an orthodontist in Sydney. Head hunted to return to Singapore to set up her own practice.
- Appointed as first dental specialist Visiting Consultant for Department of Surgery of Singapore General Hospital and National University of Singapore.
- Co-founded charity Cleft Care Indonesia Foundation (cleftcareindonesia.org) as Patron and Healthcare Director.