For Tom Cheung, the game-changer was a project in his final year of university.
The London Health Sciences Centre emergency medicine resident, then in his fourth year of a Health Sciences degree, enrolled in a palliative care medicine course. It was a deliberate choice and he took on both the class and the final assignment, from a somewhat unconventional approach.
“When most people think of palliative care, they think of older people. But for me, I wanted to take a different spin on it, with the experience I’ve had working at my mom’s rehab centre,” he said. Cheung volunteered and worked alongside his occupational therapist mom as a special needs swim instructor at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.
“I definitely developed a soft spot for helping people, in that kind of way,” he continued. “I decided (for the project) to profile Make-A-Wish; I contacted the director and they were having a meeting with their board of directors. They invited me, and I heard their stories, and in that hour or so, I was so inspired that at the end of the meeting, I said, ‘This is amazing. What can I do to help?’”
Cheung came back to campus where he was a head Soph, working with 40 student leaders in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). He started the FHS Dream Team, a student-led group that, through campus and community events, raises money and awareness for the southwestern Ontario chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
At this year’s Homecoming Brunch, Cheung will receive the first ever FHS Young Alumni Award, established to recognize unique and sustained contributions to society made by a recent FHS graduate who is 35 years of age or under. The award recognizes contributions made both while a student at Western and those that have continued or developed, once outside the walls of the university.
And Cheung certainly fits the bill.
In his final year, Cheung sat on his faculty student council. He rallied the support of the entire faculty, garnering the Kinesiology and Nursing students, and the Dream Team soon became a formally recognized entity within FHS. That was in 2007. Today, the faculty boasts hundreds of student volunteers, working with the Dream Team.
“We had planned some amazing events. We had a week where we slept in the UCC (University Community Centre) every day – the theme was ‘be a kid again.’ We were fourth-year students, moving on with our lives, reminiscing what it’s like to be a kid again. A lot of the (Make-A-Wish Foundation) kids lose out on their childhood, and (granting wishes) and being able to help them become a kid again is important,” Cheung, 27, continued.
Since the example set out by Cheung, other Western faculties have expressed an interest in rallying behind a charitable organization, as a way of unifying the student body and making a difference within the community.
In its first year, the Dream Team raised enough money to grant its first wish, sending a young boy to Hawaii. The team’s success and drive has snowballed since, and Cheung, who continued on to study medicine at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, took the initiative with him. He is still involved with Make-A-Wish, despite a hectic work schedule as resident in the emergency room.
“You get to go meet the kids, bring them presents, meet the parents and work with the family and child to figure out what a wish will be. Really, it’s a chance to go out into the community and make a difference,” said Cheung, who is now a wish granter for the foundation, delivering the good news to families.
When asked about his obvious dedication to helping children and his desire to be a doctor, Cheung noted while he considered pediatric medicine, it would have been difficult for him.
“I think I really would have enjoyed pediatrics, but it’s a very difficult job and you deal with kids in some of the best times and some of the worst times. It’s a testament to people that do it every day,” he said.
“During my time in (pediatrics), I found myself becoming very invested in patients, and it’s very difficult when things don’t go the way you want them to, or they go the way you think they’re going to,” Cheung, who plans to continue working as a doctor in London, added.
“I like being a jack-of-all-trades; I like the variety of emergency medicine and the hustle and bustle. You never know what you’re going to see in there.”