'I didn't want any of my guys to die': Covid-19 stories of SGH healthcare workers told in new book

The stories include those from Associate Professor Kenneth Tan (right) and Associate Professor Phua Ghee Chee. PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO, KEVIN LIM
Staff in SGH's isolation ward being trained on how to put on powered air-purifying respirators. PHOTO: SGH
Dr Jayant V Iyer from SGH's holistic response and outreach team engaging migrant workers during the pandemic. PHOTO: SGH

SINGAPORE - When he was first told to prepare for a new virus from Wuhan in early 2020, Associate Professor Kenneth Tan, then newly minted head of Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) Department of Emergency Medicine, felt a mixture of excitement and pride.

"We were finally going to show the world what our Emergency Department (ED) was all about. I was going to be the head of department during this pandemic and the ED would do very well," said Prof Tan.

But the new coronavirus, or Sars-CoV-2, as it later came to be known, did not turn out the way many believed it would - and neither did the situation on the ground.

"We didn't anticipate that the number of tourists who would come in from China to our department would be tremendous, and it overwhelmed our facilities," he told The Straits Times.

The situation rapidly worsened. More people turned up, and staff struggled to manage the situation even as their colleagues who treated Singapore's first patient at the hospital began to come down with fever and other symptoms.

"It really was very heartbreaking," said Prof Tan on Friday (April 22), recounting the case of a young, newly married doctor who had a high fever after seeing the first patient.

His is just one of many stories told in Purpose With Passion: Our Covid-19 Stories, a book chronicling the experiences and perspectives of SGH's healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 10-chapter book was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday at SGH's Lecture and Formal Dinner 2022, which was held at Shangri-La Singapore.

In the book, Prof Tan recounted: "I called (the young doctor) and he told me, 'I am very scared. I can't see my family. I can't see my wife, I don't know what's going on.'

"I didn't want any of my guys to die, I wanted them to be safe. There was this dread of losing someone on my watch. If they died, how would I face their family?"

SGH chief executive Kenneth Kwek wrote in the book's foreword: "The many first-hand accounts in this book speak to our humanity - our fears and anxieties, our despair when it seemed there was no end in sight, as well as the symbiosis of our actions."

The book was put together by an editorial committee led by Professor Tan Ban Hock, senior consultant in SGH's Department of Infectious Diseases, who was also the book's chief editor.

An e-version of the book can be accessed on this website.

The 10-chapter book was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday at SGH's Lecture and Formal Dinner 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In another account in the book, Associate Professor Phua Ghee Chee, a senior consultant in the Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, which he headed till April 1 this year, shared the important roles that both veteran and junior healthcare staff played during the crisis.

"We were never short of volunteers for the isolation wards. It was heartening that the newer generation of clinicians were as dedicated, committed and courageous as their seniors were. I am really proud of the new generation of healthcare workers. The future shines bright," he said.

SGH staff read the book “Purpose with Passion” at the SGH Lecture and Formal Dinner at Shangri-la Hotel on April 24, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Prof Tan said: "I think the book is going to be a very important piece of history for SGH, also about what Singapore went through, to share with future generations.

"I think it's important that the book captures… all these emotions and thoughts and processes, which can be shared with the next generation when they have to tackle the next disease."

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