A patient, then a volunteer, now also an employee

Mr Tan Ann Seng has been working as a service ambassador at St Luke's Hospital since 2014. He has also been volunteering with stroke patients for the last five years, sharing his own experiences to encourage them.
Mr Tan Ann Seng has been working as a service ambassador at St Luke's Hospital since 2014. He has also been volunteering with stroke patients for the last five years, sharing his own experiences to encourage them.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet their needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

Mr Tan Ann Seng was in a suicidal state when he was admitted to St Luke's Hospital back in 2009.

The then 61-year-old handyman had just had a stroke, and with the right side of his body paralysed, he found life meaningless.

But 2-1/2 years later, he was a changed man. Not only did he drop thoughts of suicide, but he also volunteered to help other stroke patients. This was even though he had managed to recover only the ability to straighten his fingers.

In 2014, five years after his stroke, he was even hired by the hospital to welcome patients and visitors, and assist them with directions and taxi services.

"From being a patient to volunteer to staff, that would have been unthinkable for me back then," said Mr Tan, now 68, in Mandarin.

"But the care and guidance given to me during the period of suffering made me want to use my experience to encourage others," he added.

Mr Tan's experience reflects how community organisations and charities can go a step further to empower the people they help.

Following in his footsteps, 22 other patients at St Luke's have since signed up to volunteer at the hospital. Some play the piano for patients, while others help to take their blood pressure. Those who are mobile accompany patients on neighbourhood walks.

The hospital has been rethinking the concept of rehabilitation.

Ms Chua Pei Shan, a physiotherapist at St Luke's, said: "Rehabilitation is not just about doing exercises. They may have recovered physically but, psychologically and socially, they may not be ready for society as their illnesses can affect their self-esteem and identity.

"We encourage patients who are deemed suited to volunteer to do so. In helping others along the way, they find new meaning in life and, so, become more motivated in doing their own exercises for a quicker recovery."

Some patients recuperate more slowly or get readmitted into the hospital as they do not do the exercise drills consistently at home.

For Mr Tan, the road to recovery was a long one.

In 2009, he had been enjoying doing painting, repair and plumbing jobs. One morning, a wave of nausea hit him as he was brushing his teeth. His right hand and leg lost all strength and he tumbled to the ground.

By the time the doctor at Alexandra Hospital told him he had a stroke, his speech was slurring so much that it was incoherent.

Losing the use of the muscles on the right side of his body hit him hard. From being someone who moved around and made friends easily, he could not sit up or use the bathroom on his own. "I could not even tell the nurses whether it was small or big business I had to do in the toilet," he said.

He was in a slump when he was warded for three weeks at St Luke's. He kept looking at the windows, determined to take his life by jumping down. His biggest dread was being a burden to his family.

Concerned doctors and nurses noticed his mental state and made changes to the type of medicine he was taking, fearing that the former ones may be causing certain side effects affecting his moods. They encouraged him and guided him in setting small goals to work towards, as he did his rehabilitation exercises.

When he was discharged, they taught him how to tie a rope to the ceiling in his home and use it to exercise his right hand.

After five years of disciplining himself to do various exercises every day, he regained most of the use of his right body. His lip no longer droops and he is able to walk, albeit with a slight limp.

Seeing that he was keen to continue working, St Luke's hired him as its service ambassador to greet and assist patients and visitors three years ago. He has also been volunteering and sharing his experiences with stroke patients for the last five years.

Said Mr Tan: "It makes me happy to see the progress of other stroke patients. I have a special relationship with them and it turned out that my experiences can be put to good use."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'A patient, then a volunteer, now also an employee'. Print Edition | Subscribe