I was never academically inclined. This, coupled with my naive and mischievous nature, meant that I only had two O level passes. It was a rude wake-up call – while many of my friends progressed to tertiary educational institutions, I had nowhere to go. Coming to a realisation that I needed to make something of my life, I registered for the O levels again as a private candidate. Imagine my euphoria when I slid my results from the envelope and saw that I had a grand total of... four passes!
It was my father who put the idea of nursing into my head. At the time, my four aunts and a cousin were nurses. I had seen for myself how well they were doing in their careers. My cousin also shared inspirational stories of saving lives and the importance of nursing in a patient's recovery, which struck a chord in my heart. I wanted to be someone like that too. Thus, I applied to the School of Nursing in 1982. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nurses have the power to heal – not just in the physical sense, but emotionally as well. I will never forget this patient of mine when I was a nursing student. He was an elderly man who had not bathed since his surgery a week ago. I offered to take him for a shower and reassured him when he raised concerns about his wounds getting wet. After his shower, he grasped my hands, thanked me repeatedly in tears, and said he had never felt so comfortable. This led me to understand that even small things make a big difference in our patients' life. Isn’t it amazing how a simple act like showering could have a profound impact?
After working overseas for a couple of years, I joined Gleneagles Hospital as a nurse educator. In my new role, I conducted clinical training and supervised nursing students who were posted to the hospital. Students and colleagues gave me positive feedback on my clinical coaching and guidance. This sparked my thought of going into formal teaching. Hence, I applied to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College East as a lecturer. What many didn’t know is that my application was actually unsuccessful… twice! I was only accepted on my third attempt, and I still remember being over the moon when I received the good news in 2000.
Suresh Rajasekaram (middle) and Wei Sern (right) at Suresh’s university graduation ceremony.
One outstanding ex-student who still evokes emotion is a young 18-year-old whom I first met in 2006. With his brightly-coloured hair and pierced ears, Suresh Rajasekaram did not immediately strike me as a suitable candidate for nursing. Accompanied by his mother, Suresh had come to appeal for the course. His mother spoke throughout the interview until I interjected and asked Suresh if it was him or his mother who wanted a place here, and why I should give him a chance. I remember Suresh responded in his laidback appearance, “I don’t know. But I know I will not let you down. I will work hard!” I could sense the determination in his answer.
I decided to give Suresh a chance and made him promise not to let me down. I also told him I would be personally monitoring his studies (laughs)! Suresh eventually went on to achieve a good Grade Point Average, which qualified him for a nursing diploma course. Over his next three years of studies, he continued seeking my advice and support. At the end of the course, he ranked second in his cohort!
Suresh was eventually awarded a scholarship to pursue a nursing degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS). In an interview with NUS, he said this: “It’s amazing that someone who didn’t get an O level certificate could have gone so far – and I have Mr Tay to thank. He looked beyond the boy with the coloured hair and pierced ears... and gave him a chance... I can’t imagine where I would be without him!”
We kept in contact throughout his university education and I was moved to tears when, at the end of his studies, he presented me with a framed-up dedication page from his thesis in appreciation of my guidance all those years. I'm proud to say that Suresh is now an accomplished nurse, working in the Medical Intensive Care Unit of National University Hospital.
I always tell my teaching colleagues this: We (nurse educators) are the gatekeepers of nursing standards and quality. A good nursing education sets the foundation for good nurses. As nurse educators, we are responsible for the roots of the nursing tree.
I am Tay Wei Sern, Deputy Director, Health Sciences at ITE College East. To all aspiring nurses, I urge you to be the best that you can be.