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Empowering patients, finding strength

Since young, I have come across many opportunities to serve the disadvantaged and marginalised through volunteering activities at church. Presented with the lives of those who have fallen through the cracks, I couldn’t help but feel inclined towards a career where I could make a difference in the lives of others. Social work seemed like the perfect fit.

Getting into the medical side of things was a stroke of serendipity. After completing my social work internship at a community agency, I wanted to try something different and stumbled into the hospital setting. During my stint, I witnessed great camaraderie among the healthcare team, which included medical professionals such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists. I also picked up a great deal of medical and psychological knowledge from my colleagues.  Slowly, I grew to enjoy working in the hospital. To me, what stood out most about working in healthcare is being able to empower patients and their family members in their time of need… we offer professional help with a human touch. This makes the whole treatment more holistic.

Today, as a full-fledged medical social worker, I am based at the Institute of Mental Health’s medical social work department. Often, I conduct sessions with my patients and their families to examine existing psychosocial challenges ranging from personal distress to family crisis, all this while exploring options to improve their daily lives. In addition, I oversee a team of social workers in the emergency services & general psychiatry units. 

It is not unusual for members of the public to confuse us with volunteers. To dispel their misconceptions, I try my best to educate them on the academic and professional training that medical social workers need to undergo before certification. I also take the chance to affirm our interests to help the unfortunate and disadvantaged. You know what’s interesting? A few of them actually went on to become social workers too!

Sometimes, medical social workers are expected to be miracle workers. As much as possible, we will try to advocate for our patients and be their voice. Still, we have our limitations and constraints so we do have to manage our clients’ expectations at times. What many are unaware of is that social work is based on the principle of empowering clients to find their own solutions, while believing in their strengths.

I once had a patient who suffered from depression as a result of being physically and sexually abused by her husband. Unfortunately, she was involved in a criminal charge back then. She had repeatedly submitted to the manipulation of her husband, who threatened to abandon their children after she was sentenced to prison, if she did not give in to his demands. 

My first few sessions with her were not the most fruitful – she cried a lot – and there was almost no progress. We met almost weekly to keep tabs on her safety as well as to provide emotional support. We even tried engaging her husband and children to help them understand what their mother was going through. It took her a year before she found the confidence and determination to stand up for herself. 

Eventually, she applied for a Personal Protection Order, ended the marriage after she was released from prison, and barred her ex-husband from returning home to harass her. Being part of that journey of witnessing her resiliency and willpower strengthened my conviction – sometimes, all one needs is just support from another human during their most difficult times. 

Not many of our patients and their loved ones come to us in the best of states. Some struggle financially and even have difficulties securing a roof over their heads. There are others who come with marital or family problems with their physical and psychological safety at stake… There has to be some intervention, somewhere. Time after time, these individuals surprise us with their abilities to rise above their challenges while finding solutions through their darkest valleys. 

The journey of accompanying my patients in their difficult moments and witnessing their breakthroughs makes this career truly rewarding. My name is Gideon Ng, a Senior Medical Social Worker from the Institute of Mental Health. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything else and I would do this over again, in a heartbeat.