The world is topsy turvy now. Just three months ago, SARS-CoV-2 was unheard of. But now, all the continents are battling the onslaught of the virus that is also known as COVID-19. Safe distancing, self-quarantine, safe separation are now buzzwords that pop up in every conversation. The pandemic has already crushed economies and crippled less than efficient healthcare systems.
Here in Singapore, a group of warriors are fighting relentlessly and tirelessly against COVID-19, often putting their own lives at risk while helping people who are infected by the disease. We’re talking about people working the frontline such as doctors, healthcare workers, and other service providers.
While our lives may be inconvenienced now, these healthcare workers are sacrificing a lot more than not getting a RedMart delivery slot, or having cabin fever.
In the following weeks, we will be talking to some doctors to find out what they and their fellow colleagues in the healthcare sector are doing to fight against the virus and how we can cope with the daily stress as the world continues to wage this war against the Coronavirus.
To kick off this series, we have Dr Ganesh Ramalingam, general surgeon at G&L Surgical Clinic, Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, who shares with us what life on the frontline is like.
Can you tell us a little about what you do?
I help patients with gastrointestinal problems. I’m a General Surgeon, with expertise in laparoscopic upper gastrointestinal surgery. This includes anti-reflux surgery, obesity surgery (Bariatric surgery) and hernia surgery. Other common laparoscopic procedures include appendix surgery and gallbladder surgery. The most common procedures done are endoscopic procedures including gastroscopy and colonoscopy.
How is a typical day different now from before the virus outbreak?
Nobody seems to have a typical day at work anymore — every one of us is affected in some way or the other. It has always been about providing patients with our best service and assuring that they are in the best hands, and that will carry on. With the current situation, there are more precautionary measures that have been set up at the clinic and hospital to ensure the safety of patients and all staff.
In addition, we know we have to be mentally prepared at all levels. We have to be very vigilant about our hygiene including wearing masks, washing hands and checking our patients in terms of their travel history and taking temperatures.
What are some of the precautionary measures at the clinic and hospital now?
At our clinic, we are working closely with the hospital and Ministry of Health (MOH) to ensure recommended precautionary measures are in place. In addition, we have spaced out all clinic appointment time slots, and sanitise and disinfect our clinic three times a day.
We take the temperature of patients and provide a mask should they require one, while our staff members are required to take their own temperature prior to coming into work, and two more times during working hours. We also conduct an intensive questionnaire over the phone with patients prior to their appointment.
The hospital is carrying out multiple checks before patients and visitors are allowed into the hospital. This includes a temperature check and [filling up a] questionnaire at the door, and further in there is a scanner that scans every individual manned by security.
At the lifts, there is another round of checks, and only one visitor is allowed into the wards at one time. Furthermore, all extra queries will be directed to the respective doctors and if there are any doubts over fever or travel history, patients are directed to the emergency department isolation rooms. Once in the ward, anyone with a fever is isolated in separate wards. The hospital I work in only has single-bedder wards which makes it easier for isolation.
What are some challenges that you’re facing in a time like this?
During this pandemic, changes are quick and unexpected, and we have to adjust to them instantly. We have tweaked our daily patient routine with regards to the questionnaires they have to fill upon arrival to our clinic, and temperature taking.
When it comes to our patients, we ensure to constantly update them. With all the changes that keep coming in, for example the travel bans from specific countries, we have to inform them as well as manage patient expectations. Enforcing measures like only one visitor per patient visit made some patients feel like that meant less family or emotional support, hence we allow video calls to other family members during the consultation.
Many patients were called and the necessary MOH updates were given to them prior to them visiting our clinic. We seek patients’ understanding when appointments have to be postponed due to their travel or contact history. In addition to that, patients are informed that their appointment timings have been adjusted to reduce the number of people in the clinic at any point of time. For non-urgent cases, we have advised appointments to be delayed, which did cause some angst as well.
When it comes to our staff members, it is crucial we have regular chats with regards to the ever-changing updates and how they can further protect themselves. I have to be cognisant of their mental well-being too as this is a very stressful time for them and their families, especially when they know they are at the frontlines of this pandemic.
We make sure they are emotionally motivated, give them support every step of the way, and boost their morale in any way we can. It was definitely a challenge at the start, when healthcare workers were scrutinised and ostracised. Now, the public have understood it and stepped up with their kind words and moral support. We were so appreciative when Singapore gave the frontliners applause and cheers as a nation.
Personally, we take care of our staff as our family circle includes them, and their families. We feel like we are a close-knit family. We provide them with ample masks for protection at the clinic, and at home. They are also given a care pack which includes sanitisers and all kinds of immunity-boosting multivitamins. Some of them who haven’t seen their grandkids for over two months can now video call them to stay in constant touch.
As a society, we also face a big challenge because we are all affected financially at a time like this — even doctors. We try to help as many patients; we attend to as many as we can, and we have also explored tele-consults. We are also working with other companies to figure out how medication can be sent to our overseas patients.
How is your family supporting your work now?
My family has been immensely understanding and great with coping with all the changes. My wife, the CEO of our clinic, handles the day-to-day running and managing of it. From the updates to staff matters and the logistics of the equipment procurement, to the maintenance when masks and hand washes were in high demand, she has been proactive, vigilant and supportive.
She constantly reminds me to stay hygienic and wash up when I reach home, before playing with the kids. We also advise our elderly parents to stay home as much as they can, and provide medical and other aid to their homes so they do not need to travel out too often.
With our constant contact with patients and emergencies, we have not come in contact with them for over two months and they miss us and their grandchildren but this is a precaution we have to take. We also understand that medical workers all around the world are facing similar issues, but some sacrifices have to be made to keep us all safe at a difficult period like this.
Any advice to Prestige readers on how to stay positive in this dire time?
We understand the huge strain the virus has caused to the social and financial aspects of our lives. I strongly believe that with our government’s many advisories and implemented rules, the scourge can be overcome and life can get back to normal within a few months.
This is a good opportunity for us to do all the things we have always said we don’t have the time for. Upgrade ourselves — look for online classes, learn a new language, look for interesting new games to play as a family at home. It is also a great time to catch up and pursue our favourite hobbies like reading, cooking new dishes, and having a stay-in movie night with your loved ones.
What has been one good thing that you’ve noticed during this outbreak?
The understanding of disease and hygiene levels have improved tremendously. We all now pay more attention to a proper hand washing regime and mask-wearing when we are ill. There is immense goodwill among Singaporeans, and we see countless examples of people helping and encouraging each other on various media platforms, and of how everyone is working hard to combat this disease as a community.
The government has helped us and we are in good hands. Our nation has worked together with the government to implement and execute rules and regulations in order to help one another. It brings the people in Singapore closer and we are also a shining example to the rest of the world.
Any other bright moments you’ve noticed?
The community spirit is amazing to witness as everyone works hard and gives in to overcome a common adversary. From our healthcare workers to the rest of the community, everyone realises that every single individual has a crucial role to play.
Also, the environmental impact of the current situation is clear to see. The skies are clearing and satellite images show a huge drop in both air and sea pollution, and wildlife is starting to flourish. In the bigger picture, it’s great to see the global effort put in by different countries to pull together to solve this crisis.
What else keeps you going in a tough time like now?
We are in the healthcare profession and are blessed to have the opportunity and ability to contribute in this national crisis. It’s a real privilege and honour to be able to contribute to help and alleviate the suffering of others.
My religious beliefs and my family are my strongest motivators to keep going even when times seem dark. To me, they are my light and inspiration.
The volunteers who selflessly dedicate their lives and time to the cause are my true inspiration. My wife and I have a strong ethos to help others who inspired us in running our own clinic, participating in many charity and voluntary organisations, and it is she who pushes us to work harder to help as much as we can!
Finally, it is our belief that humanity can conquer any adversity if we believe and work together, just like how we are going to overcome the current crisis.