Keeping alive the memory of or sai

Black lion symbol to be preserved when Communicable Disease Centre moves out of current site

A cabby will probably not immediately know where the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) is.

But if you say or sai, which means "black lion" in Hokkien, chances are, he will know that the destination you are referring to is the old compound located along Moulmein Road.

Such is the familiarity of the centre's black lion emblem, which adorns its main entrance, that it has become synonymous with the place since it was established in the early 1900s. That symbol, along with a few other artefacts from the centre, will be all that remains when the 106-year-old institution makes way for a new housing project.

The CDC, which will be demolished, now sits on a 9.65ha plot of land that has been zoned for residential purposes, according to a plan by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. It will be replaced by a new 300-bed centre that will be built at a site across from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) by 2018.

Its new name, the National Centre for Infectious Disease, was revealed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a Sars memorial event earlier this month.

From smallpox to chicken pox, polio to tuberculosis, and the Nipah virus and Sars outbreaks, the CDC has been through them all. Besides the black lion emblem, a cholera bed designed by the first matron of the CDC, old photos and a historical timeline of the CDC are the only relics that will remain of it.

Built in 1907, in the days when infectious diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and malaria were rampant, the centre was set up as the Government Infectious Disease Camp in Balestier Road and served as a quarantine camp. In 1913, the facility relocated to the CDC's current site in Moulmein Road and was called the Infectious Disease Hospital, which was helmed by Dr W.R.C. Middleton.

In appreciation of the Englishman's 27 years of service, it was renamed Middleton Hospital in 1920. But it later became colloquially known as or sai among locals because of its emblem and the two black lion statues at its entrance.

Before it was renamed the Communicable Disease Centre and made part of TTSH in 1985, the hospital witnessed many public health milestones, including the polio, smallpox, and diphtheria outbreaks in the 1950s and 1960s, and even the first birthday of a boy surviving on an iron lung. In 1986, it received its first HIV patient and shortly after, Singapore's first HIV baby was born in its operating theatre.

Mr Harbhajan Singh, a senior nurse manager who has been working at TTSH since 1965, recalled the fear when nurses had to be transferred from TTSH to help. "No one wanted to look after the HIV patient. A special allowance had to be introduced as an incentive," said the 72-year-old. While nurses no longer worry about caring for such patients, the disease's stigma remains.

And so, staff refer to HIV patients as "members" so as not to unsettle other patients who may feel uncomfortable in the same ward as them. There are up to 12 HIV patients staying at the CDC at any one time.

The centre also cares for patients with dengue, skin problems like psoriasis, and tuberculosis. As the lung infection can take a long time to treat, some patients end up staying as long as one to two years, and sometimes, because of the boredom and frustration, they try to escape, said nurse manager Leong Wai Lin, 69, who has been working at the CDC since 1990.

One of the centre's biggest tests was during the Sars outbreak in 2003, when nurses worked overnight processing patients.

But for all the drama that surrounds the field of infectious disease, the CDC is a sanctuary of sorts. Rambutan, mango, duku langsat and other old trees can be found on the wide expanse of land.

Cats and snakes also used to appear on the compounds regularly. Being one of the few men around, nursing manager Chio Cheng Kay, 71, would often be counted on to get rid of the snakes.

The centre's sprawling layout, an infection control feature, with wards located some distance from one another, also meant nurses could cycle from one point to another during ward rounds.

Although the CDC is a treasure trove of memories for Mr Chio, who retires next year after more than 50 years as a nurse, he thinks it is "high time" for a new hospital. He said: "It can be preserved in different ways; not necessarily in its current physical state. There must be some evolution so that health-care services improve to deal with the many unknown infectious diseases we face today."