Yes I can: meet the inspirational Dr Tan

Never give up: Dr William Tan will modify his wheelchair for the trek. “This is about giving back and living a life of legacy”. Picture: Jonathan CarrollDR William Tanis poised tobecome the first person in the world to trek the Northern Territory’s Larapinta Trail in a wheelchair, as he attempts a “journey of gratitude” to support the University of Newcastle (UON).
Nanjing Night Net

Newcastle educated cancer survivor Dr William Tan shares why he wants to trek the Larapinta Trail in his wheelchair @newcastleheraldpic.twitter南京夜网/ft1fK0yvYb

— Helen Gregory (@HGregory_Herald) June 29, 2017

Singapore-raised Dr Tan, who graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine from UONin 2004, will join a group of 30 staff, students and alumni in August to traverse a 65 kilometre portion of the trail and raise funds to support Indigenous students and research into Indigenous community health issues.

“I come from a family where my Dad was selling fried bananas along the street to support seven children,” Dr Tan said. “How did I getthrough my transformative education? Through scholarships –and I feel very grateful that there was some source of help that enabled and empowered me to develop my talents and potential.”

Dr Tan contracted polio at the age of two and was paralysed from the waist down.

He dreamed from 11 of studying medicine, but was given the impression it was “just not possible” for someone with a disability to become a doctor. He studiedlife sciences instead and moved overseas to complete his master’s and PhD and become a brain scientist.

“I was working in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota when my dream was rekindled –Imet a man in a wheelchair who was the chief of neurology,” he said.

Dr Tan was encouraged by a visiting Australian brain surgeon to apply to universities down under and “the stars aligned”. He enrolled at the University of Newcastle aged40 and accepted scholarships to study cancer prevention at Harvard and health policy at Oxford, before graduating.

Dr Tan also became an accomplished sportsman, won three gold medals at the Asian-Pacific Games; competedin the Summer Paralympics, the World Games and Commonwealth Games; and setmultiple marathon records. He devoted himself to raising funds for the needy, collected more than $18 million for charity and refused to let a 2009 diagnosis of stage-four leukaemia slow him down.

But despite all of his accomplishments, he initially baulked at Larapinta.

“Even though I’d done marathons in the North Pole and Antarctica this was a race I was not so excited about because the nature of the terrain is very daunting,” he said. “I thought ‘I have a second chance at life –I don’t want to throw my life away’. Then I realised this cause was so compelling and worth all the effort, so I’d take a calculated risk [and necessary precautions]. Growing up with adversity taught me to be creative, to not see thingsas roadblocks, but stepping stones. I don’t see challenges, I see opportunities.”