Disclaimer: All activities depicted in this article were conducted in compliance with the COVID-19 rules and regulations at that given time.
The youth volunteers, who are nurses in their day jobs, seen here in their working attire well-prepared for work. (Photos provided by Lee Zhen Hui, Chew Swee Shin and Leong Sheau Zhin)
Nurses are a special breed of people. For every patient in the hospital, there is probably a group of meticulous nurses working silently behind the scenes taking care of their every need, big or small. Regardless of how tedious or troublesome a situation might be, nurses always seem to know what to do. They are undoubtedly the unsung heroes in our healthcare system, tirelessly safeguarding everyone’s health, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being. And over the past two years, the abilities of nurses have certainly been stretched to the limits trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in even the most dedicated ones throwing in the towel.
Long hours, heavy workload and a lack of rest days are some of the reasons why many nurses have left the workforce in recent times, with government figures showing an estimated 1,500 healthcare workers quitting in the first half of 2021 alone. To obtain a deeper understanding of how working in this noble occupation has been like during this arduous period, we spoke to three Tzu Chi volunteers who are nurses in their day jobs and have remained dedicated to the profession in spite of all the challenges.
Volunteers Ms Leong Sheau Zhin and Ms Chew Swee Shin are both public hospital nurses and each had their own unique experiences to share. For Ms Leong, she was mainly working in the isolation ward housing suspected COVID-19 patients during the pandemic period and had experienced a significant difference as compared to her previous work assignments.
“It’s very fast-paced and you would really need to prepare yourself well before you start your shift as there will be no time to rest until the end,” shared the 24-year-old. “The turnover rate at the isolation ward is also very high and you will need to train yourself to multi-task as there are many things to deal with at one time.”
She cited the example of her nightshift situation where there would be only two nurses tasked with taking care of 12 patients. If there were to be an unfortunate case of a patient collapsing that night, the nurses would be the only ones immediately available to try to save the patient’s life, while having to keep an eye on the other patients simultaneously. Thus, this showed the high pressure and responsibility that nurses working in the isolation wards had to handle on a regular basis.
Less Hectic but Still Challenging
Unlike Ms Leong, Ms Chew described her experience working under pandemic conditions as not too different from pre-pandemic times. Her ward was a high dependency one which housed post-surgery patients in need of close monitoring. Due to the pandemic, some of the planned surgeries were postponed, resulting in times when there were lesser patients in her ward. While the 29-year-old felt that she had it easier compared to her fellow frontline colleagues who were in busier wards, there were undoubtedly still several inconveniences which arose during this period. For instance, there was the need to keep up with the ever-changing pandemic protocols as well as having to wear the more uncomfortable N95 mask throughout her shift.
Besides the hospitals, the polyclinics also had their own unique set of challenges to handle during the pandemic. 25-year-old Tzu Chi volunteer Ms Lee Zhen Hui has been working at a polyclinic for more than 4 years but nothing could have prepared her for what was to come during the various peaks of the pandemic. While she felt that her work was comparatively less hectic unlike her hospital colleagues, there were still times when she and her colleagues got stretched to their limits. One such instance was during the recent Omicron spike, where Singapore’s COVID-19 cases surged to a record high. Her polyclinic thus had their hands full dealing with the sudden rise in patient numbers.
Presence of Tzu Chi
While the challenges faced by the three nurses were unique to each of them, what was common was how Tzu Chi played a part in overcoming them. All three had been associated with the organisation for more than five years and were part of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Youth Association (Tzu Ching) during their tertiary schooling days. After leaving school and “graduating” from Tzu Ching, they continued to remain active in various Tzu Chi activities, volunteering often in spite of their busy work schedule.
For Ms Leong, the organisation has been a key pillar of emotional support, helping her push on at work in spite of the various challenges she has faced over the past two years.
She said: “Tzu Chi has helped me in releasing my emotional stress. The brothers and sisters in Tzu Chi are just like my real siblings. For anything that I find difficult, there is always someone for me to talk to. You don’t need to explain so much because they understand you.”
The annual Tzu Ching camp, which Ms Leong was heavily involved in organising, served as one of her key stress relief avenues in Tzu Chi.
“It feels so good when you are working towards a common goal with people you are comfortable with. Even though there are plenty of tears and sweat, it is all worth it when the camp is organised successfully together with friends around you. It is very rare to have this kind of experience at work,” she elaborated.
Similar sentiments were shared by Ms Lee and she also mentioned about how she felt a sense of pride regarding the extent in which Tzu Chi supported the wider society through calming people’s minds during the pandemic.
“Tzu Chi is like my roots. It’s not just in these two years but during the period when I was younger and yet to enter society, they already prepared me well for what’s ahead. Because of Tzu Chi’s teachings, I’m able to think about things from different perspectives whenever I face challenging situations. I have been able to accept the facts very quickly, like having to face the pandemic and being unable to go home,” said Ms Lee, who hails from Malaysia.
It is evident that the positive impact of Tzu Chi on these three nurses has not only been limited to the past two years. It has been a lifelong one, with the effects more keenly felt over the course of the pandemic period. With the public healthcare system in Singapore coping well due to the improving pandemic situation, there is plenty to be optimistic about going forward. For the three nurses, they hope to continue applying Tzu Chi’s teachings in their jobs and ultimately their lives.
Explained Ms Chew: “Joining Tzu Chi has definitely helped me in my work as Master Cheng Yen’s teachings have already entered my blood. Master once said that we should take care of the patients like our loved ones so it’s a reminder for me to treat them gently and see things from their point of view.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Tzu Chi has touched countless hearts and minds through a variety of ways. Whether it is delivering care packs to care recipients or serving drinks to front-liners at COVID-19 facilities, the organisation has been there every step of the way. While direct care has been very much visible and helpful, it is perhaps the indirect support that could ultimately matter more. For the three nurses, Tzu Chi has been ever-present in their lives, unconditionally supporting and imparting valuable life lessons at every possible opportunity, helping them to tide through challenges of the pandemic and far beyond.