May 17, 2009
Hats off to tired hospital staff
By Yen Feng
On May 6, when health-care workers heard the news that Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan was pulling back the nation's flu alert from orange to yellow, they breathed a sigh of relief in their N95 masks.
They had been twitchy all week. Not only were supplies running low, but also the masks and gowns were uncomfortable. Doctors and nurses in hospitals everywhere were already showing signs of 'flu fatigue'.
I saw first-hand how tired they all were at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
Hours after the minister's announcement, my sister was hurt in a highway accident and taken to the hospital's accident and emergency unit.
She was unconscious when my brother and I arrived 30 minutes later, in the wee hours of the morning. We rushed to the emergency room's wide-swinging doors, but were stopped midway.
'Only one at a time, please,' the muffled voice of a nurse said.
My brother went in first.
Following the orange alert regulations to the T, the nurse first asked for his identification card. She keyed in his information into the computer. She took his temperature. She handed him a paper mask. Then she gave him a blue visitor band to stick on his wrist. It seemed to take forever.
I couldn't help myself. I told the nurse: 'You know, technically, the hospitals can now allow two people in at a time. It was on the news a few hours ago.'
She said firmly: 'Sir, I know, but until we get our instructions, I can't allow you in. It's not that I don't want to.'
Throughout the night, my brother and I took turns to see our sister, who is 24. We shared the one blue band given to us, gingerly tearing it off and sticking it on again. By dawn the adhesive on the band was spent.
This happened again and again, and I was frustrated. My brother and I exchanged text messages to update each other on our sister's condition, but it felt cold - every minute spent away from them was an eternity.
I desperately wanted to cheat. I didn't want to wait my turn; I didn't want to wear that stupid mask.
But after a few hours - when my sister's condition had stabilised - I began to see things more clearly.
All the doctors and nurses in the hospital had their masks on. They cleaned their hands with antiseptic soap every time, yes, every time they left or entered a room.
In the entire emergency unit, everyone walked, washed and whispered in their personal protective equipment (PPE) - an unwieldy mass of masks, goggles and oversized suits.
I bumped into a doctor, a former classmate of mine, who said she had been working non-stop for 30 hours - the whole time with her N95 mask and PPE on - and she looked like she had been dragged around for hours by a horse.
I asked her, wasn't it uncomfortable, didn't she want to take everything off and relax for an hour or two? No one would tell on you, I told her.
She shrugged and went off on her rounds. She might have smiled but I couldn't tell underneath her mask. My frustration melted into admiration.
Orange alert - the third most serious alert level in Singapore's five-colour alert system - is, as the Health Minister said on May 6, 'no picnic'.
Tight regulations such as compulsory protective gear are one thing; worried, unreasonable visitors who don't want to play by the rules are another. Health-care workers who see themselves saving lives endangered by the Influenza A (H1N1) virus might put up with the N95 mask and PPE, but without real patients, it's tough to carry on.
The same drawn-out scenario played out in the morning, even as doctors and patients everywhere read on Page 1 of The Straits Times: 'Singapore to lower flu alert level'.
When my parents arrived, they had to stand in line - along with everyone else - to have their particulars and temperature taken before they were let inside.
Those standing on the visitors' side looked both impatient and worried. On the hospital's side, the staff worked as fast as they could, some even apologising for the long queue.
Again we took turns to see my sister: My father went in first, then my mother, then my brother, then me. It was not until 3pm, nearly 24 hours after Mr Khaw lowered the alert, that the relaxed regulations took effect at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
It was an amazing transformation: The lines disappeared, the thermal scanners were switched off, and the visitors, grateful to see their loved ones together, filled the hospital's corridors.
It was with an incredible feeling of relief when later that night, my family and I wheeled our sister out of the hospital.
As we walked out the front door, I couldn't stop smiling, and it made all the difference when the nurses, without their N95 masks, smiled back.