When the going gets tough, the tough get going

April 2018

The outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 remains one of the most poignant events in our nation’s history. Declared a "worldwide health threat" by the World Health Organisation on 15 March 2003, SARS sent people scrambling to cancel their flights as schools were shut down and the demand for protective N95 masks swelled. Of the 238 people who were infected in Singapore, 33 succumbed to the disease and died.

A group of warriors was at the forefront in the national war against SARS. They were none other than… the healthcare workers. Committed to fighting the deadly disease and keeping Singaporeans safe, our everyday heroes worked tirelessly to contain the epidemic and care for those infected. Nurse Manager Tay Ing Hua from Marine Parade Polyclinic, one of the thousands of healthcare workers, shares her SARS story.

"I remember it clear as day. It was Sunday, 30 March 2003. I was deployed to conduct health and temperature screenings of all travellers at Changi Airport. Many thoughts flitted through my mind. Would I be subjecting my family to danger? Should I stay away from them during my period of deployment? I did not know what I was getting myself into.

My role was to oversee nurses and army personnel on 12-hour shifts at the airport. However, my hours stretched to almost 16 hours daily, especially in the first couple of days when I was still getting accustomed to the work. Instructions and information were also changing at the speed of light, adding to the pressure.

To add to the stress, my elderly mother was hospitalised during this unforgiving period. She was in a critical condition and I feared that she might not make it. As much as I wished to visit her at the hospital, I knew that I was tasked with an important job. I could not leave as and when I wanted to. I was doing the night shift when I received the dreaded call; my mother passed away before I could get to her bedside. After my mother’s funeral, I returned to the polyclinic to continue the fight against SARS.

Ing Hua (first row, first from right) with her colleagues prior to the opening of Marine Parade Polyclinic.

This epidemic has opened my eyes to our vulnerability as a nation. A new virus could be lurking each time a patient enters the hospital or the clinic. Hence, there is a need for constant vigilance.

Patients are now screened for fevers, coughs or breathing difficulties; they will also be asked if they have recently returned from another country. If the answer is in the affirmative, masks will be provided and they will be isolated as a safety precaution. Strict infection control measures are also imposed on all healthcare institutions. Singapore is now more ready than ever for the next disease outbreak.

After my experience with SARS, I no longer take things for granted and I am always glad to see daylight the following day. Live your life to the fullest, as you may not know what will happen next."