In 2020, Dr Tess became an Associate Consultant of Emergency Medicine. She does not like routines and she cites this as one of the reasons she chose to specialise in Emergency Medicine. There is also more than a hint of another trait that is useful for problem-solving: the initiatives she spearheaded in her department to safeguard her colleagues’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests her ability to take stock of the big picture and act quickly and decisively to set up pre-emptive policies and procedures.
Dr Tess is her department’s wellness representative. Reading about the COVID-19 situation in the news and hearing also from her peers in Emergency Medicine in other countries about the looming crisis, she arranged for the Medical Officers (MOs) in her department to have huddles with SGH Medical Social Workers (MSWs). She anticipated that they, being junior doctors, would need the most support. These huddles or check-ins took place days before the Orange status of the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) was declared in Singapore, after which time MSWs were not allowed to be physically present in her department.
“It was a good thing we arranged for the check-ins just before DORSCON Orange,” Dr Tess says with palpable relief. “The MSWs, with their counselling training, helped our MOs to be mentally prepared by telling them, ‘Things are going to happen, you may have reactions to them, you may get frustrated, irritable, and these are normal reactions. Don’t worry, you will have support.’ They also came up with slides about managing stress.”
She feels strongly that transparency and open communication is the best way to keep fears and anxieties in check. “From staff feedback, we learnt that there was a lot of stress coming from their families. Taking care of staff goes beyond looking after the individual. I came up with an information sheet with FAQs to reassure family members who were worried about their husbands and wives coming to work and being in contact with COVID-19 patients and potential cases. We sent these out via email so that our staff could share them with their families. We also put them up at the SGH intranet so that other departments could use them if they wanted to.”
Taking care of the wider community is also a theme in Dr Kennedy’s sharing about working at SGH during the current pandemic. He highlights Project WireUp, a programme of TriGen, a volunteering organisation made up of SingHealth staff. Dr Kennedy is a co-founder. Project WireUp involves SGH and SingHealth staff going to the rental flats near SGH to distribute mobile phones to elderly residents and teaching them how to use the phones for essential services and get in touch with their families.
The public-spirited aspect of SGH is something that Dr Kennedy values greatly. He says, “When there is a common purpose, a common enemy, people really step up to go above and beyond.”
Says Dr Tess, “Working in teams kept us safe and we became very close-knit.” She is referring to her department’s swift implementation of an outbreak roster from the time the first case was reported. Emergency Medicine was divided into five teams and each team only came into contact with two other teams, the one they took over from and the one they handed over to. Each shift was 12-hours long.
Dr Tess’s voice is as lively as ever even though she is saying that it was very tiring. “From the very beginning, we were the first hospital that went into the most hardcore response. People I didn’t know so well before have become people I rely on now because of the split team system. We bonded over bubble tea,” she says, erupting into hearty laughter.
This is the last interview that is being conducted for this book. Dr Tess and Dr Kennedy are the youngest members of staff. They are also the only ones who say ‘friends’ rather than ‘colleagues’ when they refer to fellow doctors, whether these are people at SGH, other hospitals in Singapore or overseas. Perhaps this is also why they are on the same page when they share their key realisations from the pandemic.
For both of them, the lessons from the pandemic resonate beyond Medicine. When Dr Tess speaks, there are times when she sounds almost breathless in her excitement to get her point across. “The most important thing for me is not so much what we’re doing in terms of the clinical medicine. That will evolve and change over time; that component will always be there. The important thing is the people practising it, and the team on the ground. If the team is not strong, you cannot practice good medicine. You cannot do good emergency treatment and resuscitation. In five years’ time, I hope SGH does a bit more for staff wellness.”
Dr Tess continues, “Even though I’ve always felt strongly about staff welfare, through the pandemic this has further solidified for me. If the team is not rested, everything you do for the patient will be sub-par because you’re not at your best. The morale has to be maintained. Even when the pandemic is over, this principle still stands. It’s so important that staff are taken care of so that we can take care of the patients.”
The principles that have made SGH great need to be preserved and this can only happen if the staff are valued. Dr Kennedy says, “We started off with people coming together to make a difference and that’s how we will carry on. This can only happen if we value our people. Everyone who walks through SGH needs to feel proud of being part of SGH. They should feel that the organisation values you and the work that you do. The pandemic has showcased how jobs that we don’t prioritise in society provide essential services, like cleaning, for instance.”
Dr Tess quips, “And the Security.”
The pandemic has brought home to him the importance of getting the simple things right. Says Dr Kennedy, “COVID-19 has reminded us that simple things like vaccination, hygiene, good social network to help seniors at home, good primary network can make a large difference during a public health crisis.”
“This crisis has caused people to be a little more open to new ideas. We really should ride that wave. Fundamentally, it has changed a lot of things that we do and if we don’t sustain some of these changes, we would have wasted everything we’ve learnt during this time.”
Excerpt is from Volume Two of SGH’s commemorative book “Sanctuary and Stronghold: SGH at 200”, authored by Dr Yeo Wei Wei. Read more stories from the book here
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