Coronavirus outbreak

Stepping up to work on front line in battle against coronavirus

Self-imposed distancing from loved ones among sacrifices volunteers at NCID make

Dr Melissa Tien, Dr Nelson Chua and senior staff nurse Xie Linlin are among many healthcare workers who volunteered to work on the front line in the fight against the coronavirus.

There will be no Monday blues next week for Dr Melissa Tien, when she gets to have her long-awaited cuddle time with her two children, aged 12 and nine.

The 39-year-old doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) is two days away from the end of her self-imposed 14-day social distancing, which includes no physical contact with her family and sleeping in a different room from her husband.

She did it after completing a 10-day stint at the 24-hour screening centre at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) - the heart of the battle against the coronavirus - where patients are screened for fever, flu, pneumonia and other symptoms.

Dr Tien is one of many healthcare workers who answered the call for volunteers to work on the front line in NCID, where it is all hands on deck to fight the disease known as Covid-19.

"When they called for volunteers, I couldn't think of a good reason not to respond," said Dr Tien, a consultant at the ophthalmology department in TTSH. "I thought to myself, 'There's fear, there's fact and there's faith.' At the end of the day, you just go in and do what you have to do. Because when the patients come in, they're equally frightened."

Her daughter, the younger of the two, has started counting down to next Monday when they can resume physical contact, settling for "air hugs" in the meantime.

Senior staff nurse Xie Linlin, 33, who is in her third week of working at the screening centre, has also made adjustments in her personal life by not sharing meals with her family and staying mostly in her room to practise social distancing.

"Initially, my family was worried but now they tell me they are proud of me for stepping up," she said.

Amid the fight against the coronavirus, it is business as usual in other departments in the hospital.

Dr Thomas Aloysius Wong, who was stationed in the screening centre during the Chinese New Year period, noted that healthcare workers across the board had to work harder "manning the fort" as some have volunteered or are rostered to work at NCID.

"Because they had to pull us out at the last minute, a lot of our colleagues had to step in and pick up the slack. It's hard on them because of the increased workload but it's about having a unified sense of purpose," said the 33-year-old, who is a senior resident in the orthopaedic surgery department.


For many healthcare workers, the sense of duty outweighs the apprehension of being on the front line.

Dr Sunder Balasubramaniam, 34, an associate consultant in trauma services, said: "As a surgeon, I deal with a lot of blood-borne diseases. The fear of getting a disease at work is always with us because that's the nature of our job. The fear is strong if you're dealing with the unknown, but this coronavirus is not unknown. Once you're logical about it, it's a job you have to do."

Ultimately, healthcare workers put their faith in the hospital's facilities, protective equipment and one another.

(From left) Dr Thomas Aloysius Wong, Dr Melissa Tien, Dr Nelson Chua, Dr Sunder Balasubramaniam and senior staff nurse Xie Linlin are among those who have answered the call for volunteers to work at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases during the coronavirus outbreak. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

Dr Nelson Chua, 54, who was also on the front line during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, said the hospitals are more prepared to take on the virus outbreak this time.

"I'm not saying we should underestimate this situation but we've trained and prepared for this, so we should be confident that what we've prepared is enough," said the senior consultant at the anaesthesiology, intensive care and pain medicine department.


He has just finished a night shift cycle at the intensive care unit (ICU) in NCID and will likely be rostered back for one week next month.

Sharing an anecdote of a confirmed Covid-19 case who was under his care in ICU but has since been moved out, Dr Chua said: "The patient was my friend's relative so I went in to introduce myself and he gave me a smile and the 'thumbs up' sign - it goes to show that our patients really do trust us, that we will do our best to treat them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2020, with the headline 'Stepping up to work on front line in battle against virus'. Subscribe