Monday, 14 January 2013

Calling it a day after 60 years in orthopaedics

He is still the doctors' first choice for VIPs needing a cast
By Melissa Pang, The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2013

WHEN Mr Ng Puey Kwan's supervisors found out last year that he planned to retire, they called him on the phone - even though he was in China on holiday.

They wanted the orthopaedic technician - who had been at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) for 60 years - to stay.

"They like me a lot, and when people begged me to stay even though I'm a nobody, I felt I should," said the genial Mr Ng, 79, who had first planned to stop working when he hit retirement age at 60.

But this year will be his last at SGH, said the sprightly man who still clocks nine-hour workdays five days a week.

He has spent the past 60 years of his life straightening fractures with his bare hands and applying casts that help broken bones to heal.

SGH is the only employer he has ever worked for. He took a job there because he used to live nearby. Back then, it was common for those living in the area to look for work there.

Mr Ng had friends who worked as radiographers and technicians and in the accident and emergency departments. He said proudly that he lasted the longest - from 1953 until now.

He was working at the hospital when Singapore was a British colony and the top posts were filled by Caucasians.

"Back then, my supervisor and I saw only about four to five patients a day. There were few cars and factories then, and not as many accidents. Most of the patients we saw had polio," he said.

Polio sufferers can have legs that are uneven in length. Doctors perform surgery to lengthen the shorter leg.

Mr Ng was trained by his supervisor, a nursing officer at the hospital.

These days, he and two other orthopaedic technicians see up to 50 patients a day.

Some of the hospital's top people remember being trained by Mr Ng, who is affectionately known as "Ah Kwan". Since 1965, he has been demonstrating orthopaedic plastering techniques to medical students.

His years of experience mean he is the doctors' first choice whenever VIP patients need a cast. He counts current and former ministers and foreign dignitaries among them.

His bedside manner regularly earns him positive feedback from patients. "I always tell jokes to distract them from the pain. Then, I'm done before they even know it," he said.

The trick to combating nasty itches from casts is to use 4711 cologne, he tells them.

There will be plenty for him to do even as a retiree, he said, alongside his 73-year-old wife.

Nearly every Saturday, he can be found somewhere in Malaysia on a food expedition. In his younger days, he was an avid scuba diver and visited popular diving spots such as Tioman and Langkawi.

In the 1970s, together with a friend, he hunted wild boars and flying foxes in Malaysia. Each wild boar they caught could fetch $500 to $600.

Until he calls time out on his job, Mr Ng, who has eight grandchildren, will stand as something of an institution at SGH. "Sometimes, patients whom I treated more than 30 years ago come back to the hospital and they are shocked to see me. They say, 'Uncle, you're still around?'

"Many friends have passed on - some younger than I am. People joke that I si bu liao (cannot die). But I consider it my good fortune to be so healthy at this age," said Mr Ng with a smile.

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