This year marks the 12th year of the Healthcare Humanity Awards, which serve to “honour exemplary healthcare professionals who go beyond the call of duty to help others”. Inaugurated in 2004, this award was the continuing legacy of The Courage Awards, which were given out in 2003 to healthcare workers who displayed “extraordinary courage and selfless dedication in the fight against the deadly SARS virus” that threatened Singapore. Over the years, 593 healthcare professionals have received the Healthcare Humanity Awards.
Three of this year’s TIMA Singapore recipients of the award have taken a step out of their comfort zone to share their experiences – they are Senior Nurse Manager Lim Hen Jia, Senior Staff Nurse Yeoh Lin Dai, and Senior Staff Nurse Ong Qiu Feng.
“Actually, I didn't want to be interviewed initially, as I am not doing this for the name,” said Ms Lim, who declined the nomination last year. This year, however, after much persuasion from her colleague, she finally relented.
Ms Yeoh, who has also been volunteering with Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) since Year 2009, similarly stated that she did not want the award as she did not feel comfortable being in the limelight. However, she was encouraged by Dr Lee Cheng Chuan, an infectious disease specialist at CDC, who reassured her that she deserved the award. Dr Lee also encouraged her to share her story and experiences, as by doing so, she was actually giving a voice to the patients at CDC.
Learning to count the blessings by witnessing suffering
All the three nurses volunteer regularly at the Tzu Chi Free Clinic in Redhill, which is run by voluntary medical professionals, delivering medical care to low income residents. One would wonder why these busy nurses, who hold full time jobs at government hospitals, are willing to sacrifice their recreational time to do medical work as volunteers.
“During my first session at the free clinic, I accompanied a few Tzu Chings (Tzu Chi collegiate volunteers) to send a frail elderly patient home. This patient was mostly bedbound due to her chronic debilitating condition. In addition, there was no lift landing on the same floor as her flat. Therefore, her family did not have the means to bring her out. I was amazed at how the Tzu Ching students brought her to the clinic for her medical appointment, by carrying her in a wheelchair up a few flights of stairs to reach the lift landing. They had also made it possible for her to have a glimpse of the outside world. I felt that these youths were so blessed to be able to contribute to the society at their age,” recounted Ms Ong, who had taken on the role of nursing coordinator at the free clinic.
In her ten years of nursing, Ms Ong juggled with balancing efficiency with providing care and concern for her patients. Tough deadlines at work meant lesser time for patient interaction.
“For example, when drawing blood for patients in the hospital, the amount of time spent with each patient is limited as there is always a long queue of patients waiting for their turn to be served. In the free clinic, I feel at ease with more time to interact with patients,” she explained.
"I don’t know why but I just feel happy at the Tzu Chi Free Clinic," echoed Ms Lim, who had to wake up at 5am and take a one-hour bus ride to reach the free clinic. “I realised that Singapore actually has many poor and needy people, and I feel happy that I am at least of some help to them.” Lim also took the initiative to talk to the patients at the free clinic and educate them on health issues, while they waited in turn to see the doctor.
In particular, Ms Lim recalled two patients' stories, which served as a constant reminder for her to count her own blessings: “There is a 90-year-old lady who has to travel from Ang Mo Kio to the free clinic at Redhill alone. At this age, she is still the full-time carer of her daughter-in-law, who needs assistance after suffering from a stroke. Another patient is an elderly lady who lives with two grandchildren. She declined referral to the specialist outpatient clinic in the hospital for her medical condition, as there was no one to take her there. When I asked whether her grandchildren could accompany her, she replied that they needed to go to work at McDonald's to earn money whenever they had free time.”
“Only when one witnesses suffering firsthand will one appreciate one’s blessings.” ─ These three TIMA nurses have truly experienced for themselves the meaning of this Jing Si Aphorism. In doing so, they have transformed their compassion and gratitude into concrete actions to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate.
Takeaways from participating in overseas medical missions
TIMA Singapore has been engaging in overseas medical missions regularly since Year 2000, providing free medical care in various developing countries, such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Ms Ong found such overseas medical missions enriching, as they gave her the chance to be exposed to other aspects of nursing which are not included in her job scope in Singapore.
During one of the missions to Batam, Indonesia, Ms Ong was assigned to assist surgeons in the operating theatre (OT) as a scrub nurse. Having only a brief clinical attachment to OT surgeries during her nursing school days, she took it upon herself to learn more about the various OT instruments before the trip, so that she would be able to assist the surgeons to the best of her abilities.
“I found the TIMA surgeons very down to earth and patient, unlike the horror stories which I heard as a student, which portrayed surgeons as being temperamental to the extent of throwing surgical instruments on the floor when they are upset.” In particular, Ms Ong was thankful to Dr Fong Poh Him, a plastic surgeon and head of TIMA Singapore, who patiently taught her how to suture during the trip.
To Ms Yeoh, overseas medical missions are very fulfilling, as they allow her to put her training to good use. She followed TIMA to Tacloban in the Philippines after it was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2014. Once there, she witnessed how impactful modern medicine was in helping people. One of the most touching moments for her was when a local university student cried out loud after Otorhinolaryngologist Dr Ho Eu Chin successfully removed a 2cm thick ear wax from the student's left ear.
“Initially, I was worried that Dr Ho had accidentally perforated her ear drum, causing pain. After hearing her shout that she can finally hear again, I realised that those were tears of joy.” she recalled.
What really touched Ms Yeoh was that the student actually had to stop school due to her sudden hearing loss, and she was so overjoyed because of the prospect of returning to school. With tears welling up in her eyes, Ms Yeoh said, “I never knew that we can improve people’s lives with such simple remedy. This girl was unable to seek medical treatment as a doctor consultation was equivalent to one month's pay. When those patients kneeled down and kissed our legs to show their appreciation, I really felt so embarrassed as I did not think I had done enough to deserve it.”
Following TIMA to Sri Lanka for a medical mission last year, Ms Lim was very impressed by the efficiency and teamwork displayed by the volunteers. “That was my first overseas medical mission and it was really an eye opener for me. I really admired how the volunteers set up a fully functional dental clinic from nothing, within a few hours.” Ms Lim witnessed how the volunteers cooperated as great team players, contributing to the success of the mission.
“Even though it took up to six hours to travel to and fro between our hotel and the venue every day, all the volunteers forgot about their tiredness while at work. Everyone was enthusiastically trying to do everything and help everyone else,” Ms Lim recalled fondly. This year, she has yet again volunteered to participate in the medical mission to Sri Lanka.
One may be surprised that the TIMA volunteers have to pay out of their own pocket and to take annual leave to go on such medical mission trips. Despite the inconveniences and insecurities in a foreign land, these three nurses have never doubted their choice as they have learned and gained much in the process. As Ms Lim puts it, "The passion for helping people overrides your fear."
Carrying a heart full of love back to everyday life and work
Through volunteering with Tzu Chi, the knowledge that Ms Ong has gained went way beyond Medicine. Other than volunteering at the free clinic and overseas medical missions, she also visits patients' homes for dialysis financial aid assessments and participates in Tzu Chi’s recycling activities. One big takeaway for her is to learn about environmental conservation.
"In the past, I was a spendthrift as I often bought in excess and ended up discarding the items that I could not finish using. After learning about the need to protect and care for the earth through Tzu Chi recycling activities, I am more mindful about eliminating extravagant habits. I also went to residential estates with Tzu Chi volunteers, to advocate to the community the need to protect Mother Earth through our daily efforts in recycling and conserving resources. I have since become a vegetarian as it helps to reduce carbon emissions and is a simple way to be environmentally friendly." Ms Ong even went on to encourage her colleagues to cherish the Earth by adopting a vegetarian diet with her.
Such practices have truly led to Ms Ong living a simpler and more contented life now. "In the past, I used to feel insecure and uncertain about what to do in life." Having found a clearer direction in her life, she adopts the attitude ─ "If it is the right thing to do, just do it."
Ms Yeoh concurred, and shared that she used to be burned out by work. Whilst she had always been diligent and responsible in fulfilling her nursing duties over the past 30 years, deep down inside her heart she felt unappreciated. The thought of resigning inevitably crossed her mind. After volunteering at CDC and TIMA however, she gradually came to terms with her job and came to the realisation ─ "I am here for a reason, which is to help people, not because I am important. If I leave, it is the patients who will suffer."
Now, Ms Yeoh feels happy at the end of work every day, and takes pride in going the extra mile for her patients, such as encouraging and motivating them through difficult times, giving them hope and comfort.
As for Ms Lim, the friendly environment in Tzu Chi had unknowingly made a positive impact on her. Being a nurse manager, she is in charge of an entire ward of nurses, who look up to her for guidance and leadership. "In Tzu Chi, we always greet one another and treat everyone like family." In the same way, Ms Lim has been trying to create a familial atmosphere at work, whereby nurses look after one another like family. For example, she always reminds them to return from their rostered breaks on time, so that their fellow colleagues can also get their required rest.
Ms Lim also takes on the role of their 'mother', and spends time with them during her meal times. "I always eat at the staff lounge in the ward, so that I can chat with my nurses. Some of them will share their problems with me, and I will share with them what I have learnt through volunteer work." Indeed, such open communication between senior and junior nurses helps foster close relationships, which will naturally translate to better patient care.
During the TIMA Conference on humanistic medicine held in Singapore this March, one of the skits performed by TIMA volunteers portrayed the challenges faced by nurses in the current day and age, including manpower shortage, less interaction with patients and lack of understanding from patients and their families. Through the sharing of the three nurses above, one can see that they, too, have their fair share of difficulties at work. Nonetheless, with a positive attitude and great compassion for the sick, they have realised the higher calling of their profession and truly upheld the mission of safeguarding life and health with love.