At age 11, my grandfather came to Singapore to see me at my boarding school. He told me, “Study hard, and come home as a doctor so you can take care of me.” Little did I know at that time, this goal of having a doctor in the family was in part a cultural construct, a desire three generations deep intricately woven into the history of my family.

Fast forward: eight years later, during my sophomore year in college I received a C in Organic Chemistry—hardly a life-changing tragedy for most, but it was a whack over the head and punch to the heart in my single ambition to be a pediatrician. Worse, I felt like I was failing my family as well.

I ended up graduating with a degree in Economics and Sociology, and after graduate school, ended up in a management consulting firm.  From there, I was plucked by the Chairman of a health system, and became one of the CEO’s.  Eventually, over 15 years ago, I followed my passion and started working in global health philanthropy initiatives, first in cancer, then in orphan diseases, and most recently as CEO of the Global Brain Cancer Alliance organized around Glioblastoma Multiformae (GBm), the deadliest form of brain tumors.

SailboatEventually, though the alliance prospered, the disease and treatment landscape for patients remained unchanged. Patients continued to suffer. So much of healthcare and disease management put pathologies before people and I was starting to believe strongly that it should be the other way around.

Then one Friday evening serendipity intervened. At an after work gathering, I was approached by someone that I did not know in our group, who said to me, “I hear you work in brain cancer.”

This person was Sheri Sobrato Brisson, herself a many-year brain cancer survivor. After hearing her story, I went home that evening and cried. Tears shed in coming face-to-face with someone that I sensed had an incredibly difficult path to where she was now, sorry I could not have done more, and sad that the scourge that is GBm and cancer in general is still around.

I had a sense of how difficult Sheri’s cancer journey must have been and was sorry I could not have done more in my position about the disease – sad for the pain and suffering that patients like Sheri endured in her treatment process.

Perhaps the awakening was this: Did the work I contributed on GBm even make a difference to patients, which is really what matters most? If not, then what was the point?

Life’s journey can be filled with uncertainty. Where do we stand? Where are we going? What is the right path for us? And, sometimes this path is more like the zigzag of a tacking sailboat. Sometimes it is only when the path we are on is interrupted by unforeseen circumstances that we rediscover our own True North.

My heart spoke and thank god I was smart enough to listen and take notes.

Very soon after that chance meeting on a Friday evening, I joined Sheri and her team to make a difference in a brand new way! In his book The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castenada wrote, “Look at every path closely and then ask yourself, ‘Does this path have heart?’” Paths without heart are dead ends, and once on them, few can stop or leave those paths.  I feel I have found path full of heart.

However, we guide ourselves towards True North, trusting our hearts will guide us there. Perhaps True North is exactly where we need to be all along, all the time and this resonates in our hearts.  Time and time again, challenge upon challenge, we are called to tune into our right path, our True North.

DiggingDeep.org works to make a difference in patient’s lives by helping to heal the emotional injuries that accompany serious health conditions.

Vivian Ho

Referred to as a pre-eminent expert in global health, Vivian is passionate about orphan diseases, large-scale health initiatives and philanthropy. She wears the hat of Executive Advisor to Resonance Philanthropies, advises Karolinska Institute in Stockholm – Sweden, and is involved in a host of health initiatives that span the globe.


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