Monday, 25 August 2014

Health-care pioneers lauded

Health Minister thanks them for their hard work, dedication in the face of challenges
By Joanna Seow, The Sunday Times, 24 Aug 2014

Minister of Health Gan Kim Yong yesterday paid tribute "to the sweat, the tears and sometimes the blood" that Singapore's pioneer health-care workers had shed.

They worked during a time when clean water, proper sanitation, vaccination against common infectious diseases and good nutrition were the basic needs, he said.

Speaking at a tribute lunch for health-care pioneers, he added: "Many of you may be modest and say, 'No lah, I did not build any hospitals or new nursing homes, I didn't do anything special. I was just doing my job.'

"As we look back over the last five decades, no matter how big or small you think your role has been, the progress and achievement we have today is a result of the dedication and hard work from each one of you."

He was speaking to more than 400 seniors - current and former staff of the Ministry of Health and 10 other agencies - at the Mandarin Orchard event where guests mingled over music and dance performances and a seven-course lunch.

Mr Gan also said that Singapore's health-care system was commended by the president of the World Bank on a recent visit. However, he added that the country is now facing new challenges, such as an ageing population and public health threats like SARS and Ebola.

Mr Gan urged the current generation to be inspired by the pioneers' "dedication, resourcefulness and far-sightedness" and translate that inspiration into action.

"The best way we can thank and honour our pioneers is to do justice to their legacy, to work hard for a future that will be better for our children and their children."

Breakthrough in tb treatment adopted globally

Until the late 1970s, treatment for tuberculosis sufferers took a couple of years.

Thanks to Dr Chew Chin Hin and his team - who worked to find the best combination of drugs to combat the illness - it now takes six months. Their treatment regime has been adopted worldwide.

"I'm hoping and praying there will be more breakthroughs, especially in dealing with drug-resistant TB," said the 83-year-old adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and former chairman of the Health Ministry's TB Research Committee.

Dr Chew also started the nation's first foray into geriatric medicine in the 1980s, when he was the ministry's deputy director of medical services. The department which he convinced Dr Francis Joseph Jayaratnam to start at Tan Tock Seng Hospital set the standard and now most hospitals have geriatricians. As Singapore's population increases and lives longer, seeing the discipline grow over the years has been "gratifying", Dr Chew said.

As the National Medical Ethics Committee chairman from 1994 to 2000, he initiated the Advance Medical Directive, which allows people to state that they do not want extraordinary life-sustaining measures if they become terminally ill.

He became the first Singaporean to receive the prestigious Mastership in the American College of Physicians in 2010. His father Benjamin Chew also worked in hospitals, treating the casualties of World War II and rampant infectious diseases.

School health booklet was her idea

Looking after 400,000 schoolchildren sounds tiring, but for former School Health Service director Uma Rajan it was "youthful ageing".

"Being with them, you felt young, you always felt life was there," said Dr Rajan, 74. "They kept you on your toes, because they were growing from ages six to 16. It was a big responsibility which we enjoyed because we felt we were moulding these children."

When she started as a medical officer in the maternal and child health clinic, she would go to nearby islands to meet villagers who sometimes cooked her a meal.

Later, she asked top hotel chefs to judge school sandwich-making competitions, as part of health education for the children.

Dr Rajan is probably best known for introducing the health booklet that follows children from birth into their adult years, providing a record of physical growth and well-being that parents can keep at home.

"Before that, parents had no way of knowing what was on their child's medical record card," said Dr Rajan, whose biggest challenge was attracting talent. "Doctors who came to school were usually women who were expecting, because they could keep office hours and not do night duty.

"We wanted a time when doctors would ask for it because they liked the work."

Dr Rajan brought in hospital specialists and made keeping up with current treatments part of the job scope.

Although now more involved in eldercare, having also served as director of eldercare at the Health Ministry, she hopes school health will be well taken care of by her successors. She added: "We have to be in tune with changing needs."

Fear not, here comes the dental nurse

As a school dental nurse of 42 years, Madam Fatimah Faridah Merican saw her fair share of scared patients.

"There was one girl who stood outside the door and refused to come in, so I let her watch her friend," said the 68-year-old retiree. "The next time, she came into the clinic but didn't want to sit on the chair, so she watched her friend again." It was only after a few days that the pupil finally let Madam Merican peer into her mouth.

Her love for children was why her father, a dental technician, suggested she take up the course at the then Institute of Health.

She was in the third batch of trainees in 1964, and her proud father photographed her as she practised on the wooden mouth models with plastic teeth.

After graduating and becoming a dental nurse, the schools she spent the most time at were Balestier Primary School and Methodist Girls' School (MGS), where she checked children's teeth and gums for 17 and 12 years respectively.

"In the early days, parents wouldn't want us to refer their children to specialists for braces. 'So what if it's crooked?' they would say. Now everyone's so conscious."

Madam Merican was at MGS until she retired in 2006, and recalls fondly one girl in particular who would go to her clinic almost every day at 3pm and ask, "Nurse, can I do my homework here while waiting for my dad?"

"She still meets up with me now that she's married and a doctor," said Madam Merican. "So I tell her, 'I used to take care of you, now you take care of me'."

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