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The Pediatrician is in: Dr. Joy Sy on the Latest Breastfeeding Concerns and COVID-19 Misconceptions

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Dr. Joy Ty Sy is a practicing physician at Cardinal Santos Medical Center for nearly 20 years. In our interview with her, she talked about her family life and her passion for medicine. She also addresses numerous misconceptions regarding breastfeeding and the COVID-19 virus, as well as popular antivirals used to treat people infected with the latter.

Her family life

Dr. Joy noted that she was raised in a traditional and conservative Chinese family. Her father was from the Chinese province of Fujian, and they arrived in the Philippines by boat, hoping to build a better future. He eventually met her mother, a fellow Chinoy, in the Philippines as well.

Dr. Joy shared that her father had many rules at home that they were expected to abide by. These included sleeping and getting up early, as well as eating on time. Her father also made them work for the family business.

This was definitely not easy. However, Dr. Joy expressed gratitude for the discipline he instilled in her. “And that meant working long hours, even on the weekends. Papa instilled in us at a very young age the value of hard work, perseverance, motivation, and the drive to succeed or excel in our chosen careers. And I really appreciate the discipline, and I really appreciate that he disciplined us and trained us in that aspect.” Dr. Joy explained.

Her passion for medicine

Dr. Joy recalled a particular moment that made her decide to pursue a career in medicine. In her freshman year, they were asked to dissect frogs for one of her classes. She noted, “I really find that fascinating. It was then that I realized I wanted to pursue a medical career. It didn’t matter to me if years were long.”

From then on, Dr. Joy worked hard to finish her undergraduate course, BS Biology, at De La Salle University (DLSU). She, later on, took up medicine at the University of Santo Tomas and got her medical degree at the age of 24. Dr. Joy also talked about her clerkship and internship experience. She shared, “I was always drawn to kids. I remember back then we would go to missions and I would always want to work with the children. And I guess that pretty much carved out my career as a pediatrician.”

Despite her parents’ initial expectations for her to be part of the family business, she reassured them that this is truly her passion and that she can do this. She also promised to work hard and “give them that M.D. degree.”

Dr. Joy also talked about a Chinese saying that her father would tell her when she was younger, “I remember many years back, my dad used to share a Chinese saying that goes ‘Water droplets pierce stone and rope saws cut the wood.’ It means that patience and perseverance can bring us anywhere, no matter how difficult the situation may be. Because dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through perseverance. Studying to be a doctor can be tedious but achievable.” To accomplish her goals and succeed in life, it took a lot of effort, attention, drive, and tenacity. It needed certain abilities to be able to handle its emotional and mental demands. 

Addressing breastfeeding concerns and misconceptions

“As a pediatrician, we take care of babies during the newborn period.” She explained. She also noted how that is just the beginning. As pediatricians, they must also supervise and guide them through their childhood and adolescence. Uncertainty persists as the pandemic progresses and recommendations change on a regular basis. As such, Dr. Joy stated that they’re “here to address some of the most fundamental breastfeeding concerns you may have, even if they appear to be minor.”

She also talked about important breastfeeding issues that need to be addressed. She noted, “Transmission of the virus is very rare but possible during pregnancy or during delivery.” She also added that, although very rare, babies can also be infected with COVID-19. She assured that “most babies won’t develop COVID-19, but if they do, they recover fairly quickly and most of them can be asymptomatic.”

She even explained that “absolutely close contact and exclusive breastfeeding immediately after birth can help the baby thrive. And this outweighs the potential risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Actually, COVID-19 virus has not been detected in breastmilk of any mothers who are confirmed or suspected with COVID-19 illness.” 

She later talked about the first oral antiviral medication, Molnupiravir, which is to be approved in the market. “There is relatively limited safety data because this is a new drug. As a result, breastfeeding is not advised during therapy and for four days following the last dose. There are currently no data on remdesivir in nursing, and because the oral bioavailability is relatively low, the newborn is unlikely to absorb it through breastmilk.” Dr. Joy clarified. “So generally it’s pretty safe. Studies have shown that there are no side effects among breastfed infants whose mothers are currently being treated with tocilizumab. So. When a mother is being treated for COVID-19 using this drug, she can still continue to breastfeed.”

However, she also stated that there is no information available on the use of favipiravir among breastfed infants. As such, she reminds everyone that if they are prescribed this medicine, they must make sure to monitor for side effects. She also talked about azithromycin, another antiviral that is frequently prescribed for patients with COVID-19. “Azithromycin is a very common antiviral given to patients with COVID-19. It’s fairly safe to use while you’re breastfeeding so you don’t have to worry about anything.”

Lianhua, a popular and traditional Chinese medicine that is being used by a lot of people today, was also discussed by Dr. Joy. “Lianhua confers therapeutic effects on COVID-19 by speeding up the recovery rate of symptoms. But you must remember when you’re taking lianhua, you are not supposed to breastfeed. The fear and anxiety are very real. And as pediatricians, it is our role to assure you that there’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

She proceeded to underline that early breastfeeding is still the greatest option for newborns since it benefits not only the baby but also the moms by potentially reducing breast and ovarian cancer and infant mortality. “Again, the COVID-19 virus is not transmitted through breastfeeding or breastmilk, and there’s no need to worry. We continue to emphasize the importance of breastfeeding, whether or not the mother is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19.”

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