To be honest, I did not feel any fear when I was informed that I had to be on the frontlines, caring for potential COVID-19 cases. I thought that it was probably going to be the same as attending to patients in an isolation ward. In fact, my parents who are residing in China were more worried than I was.
The anxiety only kicked in when the situation gradually worsened – rising number of daily cases, stricter government measures and general wards being converted to house COVID-19 patients. I also had to minimise physical contact with friends and colleagues, and even avoided sharing my concerns with my loved ones in case it added to their worries. Fortunately, the physiotherapists in the team shared much similar feelings, hence we supported and encouraged one another emotionally.
In today’s climate, I have to be vigilant and keep myself updated on the latest protocol. For example, it is now mandatory to put on the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which includes gear such as N95 mask, goggles or a face shield to protect patients and myself. It is not easy wearing the N95 mask for long hours. I remember experiencing shortness of breath and occasional headaches in the earlier days, and even had to step out of the ward for a quick breather to ease the discomfort.
As an occupational therapist, I work with patients in using daily activities as part of the rehabilitation treatment. With no visitors allowed in hospitals nowadays, it is not uncommon to see patients feeling progressively dejected due to the lack of engagement with their loved ones and their usual routines.
After all, as Occupational Therapist Dr Ann Wilcock and Endocrinologist Dr Hans Selye put it: “Humans are occupational beings with a need to use time in a purposeful way in order to flourish. Our brain slips into chaos and confusion unless we constantly use it for the work that seems worthwhile to us.”
For instance, I had a patient who appeared to have lost his motivation to even sit up from his bed. He spoke about how meaningless his life in confinement was. After interacting with him and realising that he enjoyed drinking coffee and playing Sudoku at home, I prepared his favourite drink and managed to get him to leave his bed to complete a Sudoku puzzle! Over time, he opened up and we had some meaningful discussions. We talked about his goals and how we could achieve them through therapeutic activities. This positive transformation in his mood and motivation to engage in daily activities was certainly rewarding.
Sometimes I ask patients to ‘look at my face’ as part of my therapy assessment. That invariably leads to them teasing me, saying they can’t see my face due to the mask! These little moments lift our moods and taught me to smile with my eyes so that patients can be comforted and reassured during treatment.
Outside of work, the most significant encounter I had as a healthcare worker took place during my visit to the immigration office. On declaring that I had come into close contact with a confirmed case as part of my job, I was stopped from entering the building. Moments later, an officer in full PPE appeared and walked towards me. I could sense the sudden panic from the people around me as they made blatant movements to distance themselves. I understood their cautious stance, and had a good laugh when I shared this experience with my colleagues!
However, I have heard of frontline workers having unpleasant encounters with members of the public. It was disheartening to come across articles on discrimination faced by healthcare workers as I had full knowledge of the sacrifices made by those on the frontline. Even as they risk their lives battling COVID-19, they continue to face a lack of respect from some in the community. I understand these negative emotions may have arisen from fear, but I still wish healthcare workers can be treated with more dignity.
My passion and responsibility for my patients and camaraderie with colleagues are what drive me to work every day. Everyone has been working hard to stem the spread of COVID-19 and trudge through this adversity. The least I can do is stay in my assigned position to end the marathon together with my healthcare colleagues. Often times, I remind myself of my calling as a healthcare professional to find the strength to persevere and overcome my fears.
Recently, my father told me that he used to think that only soldiers and farmers toil hard. Now, he fully appreciates the hardship of healthcare workers. His acknowledgement meant a lot to me as it affirmed my purpose as an occupational therapist.
I am Khoo Teck Puat Hospital Occupational Therapist Su Xue, and I am proud of my work.