For Sarah Lim, being a frontliner in the nation's fight against COVID-19 came with a mix of apprehension and worry.
This was especially the case last year, when little was known about the virus. As a Senior Speech Therapist at the National University Hospital (NUH), her day-to-day work saw her possibly coming into contact with respiratory droplets, which are known to transmit COVID-19. She also had to care for COVID-19 positive patients who had to undergo intubation, or had a tracheostomy (an opening created at the front of the neck to aid breathing) tube inserted.
She shares some of her challenges, and what keeps her going during this difficult time.
How did you feel when you first saw the news of the rise in community cases in April 2021?
There was a great sense of foreboding, as I recalled what we had experienced last year during the circuit breaker period: The surge of cases, team segregation and social isolation. I was also worried for my family, especially my grandparents who are frailer and thus more susceptible to falling ill.
Having cared for COVID-19 patients last year, could you share your experience and some challenges?
Speaking, eating and drinking are known opportunities for respiratory droplets to transmit COVID-19. However, as speech therapists, these are the actions we need to deal with every day as we care for people who have communication and swallowing problems, and help them regain independence.
Many of the critically ill patients with COVID-19 had undergone intubation or had a tracheostomy tube – this meant that there was a high chance of them not being able to swallow safely and may have difficulty speaking. These patients were also affected by visitor limitations. Many elderly patients who had to be isolated were often fearful and distressed at not being able to see their loved ones.
Patients aside, our speech therapy team also faced multiple changes in our operations as we had to adapt to the evolving situation daily. The team had to be split, which meant a heavier workload. We also had to don Personal Protection Equipment, shift patient appointments online, or postpone them altogether.
What did you do to ease your patients’ anxiety?
We tried our best to connect them with their family members and bridge the gap between them and the outside world. Being able to help these patients eat and drink again, or speak to their loved ones over the phone or through a communication board definitely brought much joy and a sense of achievement to us as speech therapists. It also served as a reminder to us that our work can make a difference in the lives of others, and gave us the strength to keep going despite the risks.
Share one memorable experience you’ve had during this period of time.
During circuit breaker last year, I volunteered to help out at the dormitories. It was heartwarming to see NUH staff from different departments come together to care for the migrant workers.
How do you feel about the reports of discrimination against healthcare workers?
It is understandable that people are fearful of the virus and want to protect themselves and their loved ones. However, healthcare workers are trying their best and are working tirelessly to care for those who are sick. We take extra precautions to protect ourselves, our families, our patients and their families. Any support – even as small as a nod, smile or words of encouragement – goes a long way. It motivates and helps us to battle the fatigue and stress, allowing us to better care for our patients.
As a frontliner, could you share the importance of being vaccinated?
There is a growing evidence that suggests vaccination increases our chances of being protected from COVID-19 and reduces the severity of the virus, if infected. This is especially important for us on the frontline as when we protect ourselves, we are also safeguarding our loved ones and patients.
What keeps you going during this difficult time?
Our team has been resilient and have calmly taken on these developments in our stride. We encourage and help each other out where we can and even have lunches together at times (sometimes virtually!). Even though we don’t get to see each other face-to-face often, everyone is always just a call away. Knowing that we have each other’s back is what fuels and spurs me on.