Doctor, 61, set aside plans to spend time with family to fight Covid-19 in dormitories

Dr Edwin Low Cheng Tee with his trophy after the Singapore Health Quality Service Award ceremony on March 29, 2021.
Dr Edwin Low Cheng Tee with his trophy after the Singapore Health Quality Service Award ceremony on March 29, 2021.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - After 15 long years of service in the public health sector, Dr Edwin Low had been looking forward to moving on to the next chapter of his life.

The 61-year-old had planned to step down from his role as SingHealth's group director for regional health to spend time with his wife and ageing in-laws. Working just three days a week would also give him the time to look after his young grandchildren.

But his long-awaited break was put on hold at 8am on April 11, 2020.

Dr Low recalled on Monday (March 29): "I was awoken by a call from the group chief operating officer, who said, the (joint) task force was getting a meeting together... Can you be at the Ministry of Manpower building at 11 o'clock for an urgent briefing?"

At the meeting, Dr Low heard about the Government's plans to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories, where the disease had already begun to spread rapidly.

"It became very obvious that there was a lot of work that had to be done," said Dr Low.

So given the experience he had in the healthcare sector, and of conducting disaster relief operations when he was in the military, he decided to step up and become the SingHealth lead of the inter-agency joint task force - a decision that led to him receiving a SuperHero Award at the Singapore Health Quality Service Awards on Monday.

The work was a far cry from the more relaxed lifestyle Dr Low had envisioned for himself. He had to build his team from scratch within a day, handpicking about 10 individuals who, together with him, would help oversee all medical operations - not just Covid-19 ones - in 15 dormitories, four swab isolation facilities and a community care facility.

The team was also tasked with organising a mass swabbing operation the very next day.

The hectic pace of work would continue till September. At its peak, Dr Low was in about 30 WhatsApp group chats, and was expected to address issues at any hour of the day. He also regularly worked on Sundays.

"Things were very fluid, resources were always stretched. A lot of this is very similar to wartime operations - complexity, uncertainty, a bit of chaos, coordination with multiple agencies," he said.

For his efforts, Dr Low became one of the 17 winners of the SuperHero Award. About 7,000 healthcare professionals and partners from 38 public and private institutions, community hospitals and agencies from the community care sector were recognised at the annual event, which is in its 11th year.

Themed "a celebration of unity", this year's ceremony focused on the healthcare system's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reflecting on his award, Dr Low said: "I'm honoured, but it's really a recognition of the team that was behind the whole effort."

At Monday's event, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong noted that like Dr Low, many professionals across the entire healthcare system moved out of their comfort zones to be deployed in dormitories, swab facilities and other areas of the battle.

"Our journey in the past year has not been easy, but I am heartened that we have remained resilient and overcome many challenges together to arrive at where we are today," said Mr Gan, who was the guest of honour at the event.

Another SuperHero Award winner, Dr Shaun Gerald Nathan, was recognised for his work with nursing homes during the pandemic.

Dr Shaun Gerald Nathan with his trophy after the Singapore Health Quality Service Award ceremony on March 29, 2021. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

But the 32-year-old resident physician at St Andrew's Community Hospital (Sach) had not initially looked forward to such a role. Inspired by stories of healthcare workers during the Sars crisis of 2003, he had wanted to serve on the front line when Covid-19 hit Singapore.

The opportunity presented itself around April last year, when he was offered the chance to serve on acute Covid-19 wards set up by Sach.

But after speaking with his medical director, he decided to remain with Changi General Hospital's nursing home initiative, the EagleCare Programme, as well as two St Andrew's Nursing Homes, where he was serving, as they were facing a manpower shortage.

"I initially wondered, what was I doing in the 'back lines' of the Covid pandemic? But as the work evolved, I started seeing the importance of what I was doing," said Dr Nathan.

He helped come up with a model of telemedicine at EagleCare, and provided valuable advice to the nursing homes on carrying out swabbing for staff and residents.

He also developed a care programme to determine which residents were nearing the end of their lives and needed special care.

And when visits became limited due to the pandemic, he made arrangements for dying residents to have video calls with their families, allowing them to be united virtually one last time.

He would also often have to return to the homes in the wee hours of the morning or on weekends when residents took a turn for the worse.

Dr Nathan said: "I could only have done it thanks to the advice and direction from my bosses, the support from my colleagues, the encouragement from seeing the faces of my patients and their families, the patience and understanding of my own family and friends, and the inspiration of my faith."

He added: "All healthcare staff were heroes during this ordeal, including the admin staff and management. It's really important that we recognise all those who played a role in fighting the pandemic."

Speaking at the ceremony, Mr Gan said: "You have fought hard and placed society before self, and stood in solidarity at the front line to care for fellow Singaporeans. On behalf of the Ministry of Health, and all Singaporeans, I thank you for working tirelessly to keep Singapore safe.

"We will continue to build the capability of the healthcare sector, invest in skills training and job redesign so you can be supported at each level and do well."