Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The SARS Battle: How it united Singaporeans

They were shunned for treating SARS patients
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Feb 2013

WHEN a young lady was admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) in early March 2003 with fever and breathing problems, no one suspected anything was amiss.

But very soon, both nurses and other patients of Ward 5A started coming down with fever, with symptoms that came fast and hit hard.

"I remember sitting on the sofa at home, watching a movie after my shift, when suddenly there was a sharp pain on my spine," said Ms Vasanthi Palanivelu (far right), 45, then a clerk at the hospital. She had processed the lady - who would become Patient Zero in the SARS outbreak - when she was first admitted. "I just dropped onto the sofa. That was when the fever came."

The next 12 days were a blur, said Ms Vasanthi, whose fever went as high as 43 deg C. She could not hold down food, and at one point was bleeding from her nose, gums and ears. She lost 12kg in nine days.

Her colleagues also began to succumb to the virus, which hit Singapore exactly a decade ago this month. They recounted their stories to The Straits Times last week.

Ms Rose Herdawati (left, in photo), 34, was a patient service associate at the Intensive Care Unit where Patient Zero had been transferred after her condition deteriorated.

She remembered helping the patient comb her hair - non-nurses were also chipping in to help care for patients, as the hospital was stretched - and days later she came down with a high fever.

Fever also came for Ms Siva Sevakame, 47. An assistant nurse in Ward 5A, which had become a "hot ward" for SARS, she was admitted and put in isolation at the hospital.

As the cases of suspected SARS patients began to multiply, and SARS was in the middle of March 2003 officially included under the Infectious Diseases Act, Ms Sevakame remembered the ugly side of how health-care workers were treated by the public.

"Whenever the train reached Novena, it would become passenger-free," remembered Ms Sevakame. "We would take showers and change before going back, but somehow they'd know we were nurses and start moving away.

"So I didn't have to worry about not getting a place to sit," she added with a laugh.

The prejudice was not just from strangers, but from neighbours and family too.

Ms Herdawati remembered how neighbours who used to exchange cooked food with her mother stopped doing so immediately after learning she had been admitted.

Ms Sevakame recounted one experience that particularly symbolised how fear could be more contagious than the disease itself. The senior assistant nurse was then renting a room in a Yishun flat that, with her husband, they shared with her landlady and the landlady's three teenage children.

When her landlady got wind that Ms Sevakame might have contracted SARS, she tried to evict the couple, even while Ms Sevakame was warded at TTSH.

"I had to call the police."

By then, the Infectious Diseases Act had been amended, giving the Health Ministry additional powers to fine or imprison those who broke home quarantine orders.

But attitudes were changing. Media reports had started shining a spotlight on how health-care workers were being shunned, while stories of bravery and sacrifice by doctors and nurses in the fight against SARS were reaching the public.

"Once SARS had been diagnosed and they came up with this word SARS and people were getting discharged to go home and the number of fevers were going down, the perception of the public also changed," said Ms Sevakame.

"When they heard that some of the health-care workers passed away, I think that motivated the public to come together as one."

Ms Vasanthi, recalling a flood of cards with well wishes, hampers of health supplements and cooked food, said: "Things started coming in about a week after the stories came out in the media. It was like an early Christmas, we got a daily change of menu."

Cabbies were now well equipped and ready to pick up passengers from the hospital. Dozens of taxi drivers even started offering nurses and doctors free rides.

"It was very touching, actually," said Ms Vasanthi. "It was like there are still so many people thinking of us."

For the health-care providers, it was testament that Singaporeans could rise to the occasion, and be part of something larger.

"I think the SARS outbreak opened their minds, that you could share your love with everyone, not just your blood (relatives)," said Ms Vasanthi. "That it was not just you, or me. It's we."

Hotel's support for health workers remembered
Goodwood Park rallied behind them in SARS crisis, when many shunned them
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Feb 2013

IT WAS March 2003 when a mystery form of pneumonia hit Singapore. While many citizens were concerned with self-preservation, there were a handful who felt the need to rally behind doctors and nurses on the front line who were fighting what would come to be known as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.

Ten years on, Goodwood Park Hotel chairman Mavis Oei recalled how she thumbed through the newspapers and read about how taxis would refuse health-care workers' business, while commuters gave them a wide berth on buses and trains. "I was sad for them, and felt I needed to show the hotel's support," said Mrs Oei, daughter of late banker-philanthropist Khoo Teck Puat.

When she returned to work the day after the news broke, she decided that the best way to show the hotel cared was to make sure those on the front line were well fed.

"Otherwise, how are they going to have the strength to battle this disease for us?" said the hotel's executive assistant manager Cindy Hwang.

The hotel had just started a home delivery service for food from its restaurants after business suffered following the virus outbreak.

"It was very bad, some days we would get perhaps two tables (of guests at the buffet). Deadsville's the word," she said. "But if you sell a buffet, it still has to look like a buffet."

Mrs Oei asked its food and beverage department for volunteers to send high tea snacks to the hospital. Despite fears over health risks, five answered her call.

One of them was Mr Michael Cheng, then the hotel's food and beverage (F&B) operations manager, who identified with the nurses and doctors. "I felt that since they were sacrificing their lives, we should do something to show our appreciation," he said.

Together with transport supervisor Ng Siew Chye and three banquet boys, they would take turns to send a mix of finger food, including prawn balls, chicken karaage, scones and sandwiches to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, together with pots of "cooling tea" from its Chinese restaurant.

On delivery days, the hotel would pack and send food that could feed up to 50 people. Its kitchens were whipping up about three times what they would normally prepare for daily high tea buffets.

More than 20 trips were made to nourish the hospital staff, and Mr Ng drove on most of them - even though he felt apprehensive at first.

"When I saw all the nurses wearing their masks I was quite fearful," he said.

He recalled strict procedures on temperature checks, the compulsory wearing of gloves and masks, and multiple gantries before his van would make it into the loading bay.

"We had to stay in the vehicle until they gave us permission to come down and deliver the food. It was like national service again," said Mr Cheng, now the hotel's assistant F&B director, laughing.

Both Mr Ng and Mr Cheng said they would do it all over again, and felt their "small part" in the SARS saga was worth the effort.

"Because they (the nurses) were all covered up, I couldn't really see their expressions," said Mr Ng. "But I knew from their body language that they were quite grateful to have us sponsoring their food."

When deadly virus came to Singapore

SEVERE acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a highly contagious and potentially fatal form of pneumonia.

The virus originated from a 45-year-old man in Guangdong province, China.

The disease spread to Singapore in late February 2003, when three Singaporeans returned from a stay at the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong after coming into contact there with a doctor from Guangdong.

One of the Singaporeans - who were then warded at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) - triggered the outbreak here and turned TTSH into a ground zero.

The series of transmissions would eventually lead to 238 cases of SARS in Singapore, including 33 deaths.

TTSH was later designated the Republic's only hospital to handle all SARS-related cases.

After three months, Singapore was declared SARS-free with effect from May 31, 2003.

Remembering SARS: 10 Years On

No comments:

Post a Comment