Throughout the challenges of the last two years, June Goh-Rin did not lose an ounce of optimism. She tells Annabel Tan about the storms she has weathered, lessons learnt, as well as the wisdom she is taking into this brand new year.
In contrast to the glamorous side of June Goh-Rin that most people see, the version of her that I meet on a late Thursday afternoon has just come from a long shift at the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of Singapore General Hospital (SGH). Donning her scrubs with her face bearing creases from wearing an N95 mask all day, June somehow still manages to look radiant and is perky throughout our chat.
I later learn that hers is a strong, positive energy that emanates from within. Just by counting the many hats she wears, it is clear that it takes someone as resilient, driven and passionate as June to do it all. As a senior consultant and immediate past director of Neuroanaesthesia and Neurocritical Care at the largest hospital in Singapore, she typically spends one of every five weeks at the NICU, and the rest of the time in the operating theatre. She is a mother of two and also juggles teaching at Duke-NUS Medical School, Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
On top of work and family commitments, she devotes a lot of her time to volunteer work, various community causes and passions. June is the immediate past president at Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), where she has also served as president, second and first vice-presidents in her earlier terms. She is also immediate past president of the Asean Confederation of Women’s Organisations (ACWO), and sits on the boards of the Association of Women Doctors (Singapore) (AWDS) and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. In addition, she chairs the transplant oversight committee in SGH and serves as the director of philanthropy in the SingHealth Anaesthesia Academic Clinical Programme.
It is a laundry list of roles and responsibilities for an extraordinary woman – much of which was thrown off course when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Singapore last year. Yet for June, these tough times over the last two years have had its fair share of positives too.
Keep calm and carry on
While normal life was put on hold during the Circuit Breaker in 2020, June found that the biggest silver lining was being able to be with her family. “I am the type to see the bright side of things,” she says. “Both my kids were stuck at home! My son couldn’t go back to boarding school in England because schools were shut. Never have we had everyone at home together for this long and it was nice.”
To occupy themselves, the family started picking up new leisure activities together, such as yoga classes via Zoom, chess, carrom and darts.
This family bonding was particularly precious because in addition to going through a pandemic, June was simultaneously battling a health crisis of her own. It was just before she and her family were about to leave for a holiday in Kyoto, Japan, early that year when she received some difficult news about her health. She has chosen to keep the details private, but admits she was dealt quite a blow.
Upon hearing her diagnoses, June spent the time abroad quietly contemplating how to deal with it. She visited the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, where she had an experience that turned out to be a rather apt metaphor for her situation. Known as the Tour of the Womb, the experience leads visitors along a hidden stairwell on the temple grounds into a pitch-black basement, with the only guide being a rope to hold on to. After walking deep into the darkness, a stone structure finally comes into view, giving off a glow that is the only source of light. The journey symbolises enlightenment; entering a womb and leaving it reborn.
“It made me realise that when you are completely in the dark and confused, you cannot do anything else except just put one foot in front of the other,” says June. “There is no going backwards. You can either freak out and panic or you can just put aside any fear and get to your goal. I decided to just move forward.”
She took about eight months off work to focus on treatment. While she went through a lot physically, June says she managed well mentally. “Working in a hospital, I see a lot of people going through similar, if not worse, things,” she commiserates. “Many don’t have that family support I have or the access to the level of care that I had. It’s terrible to complain when I’m so privileged. I was also quite lucky to go through all that treatment without any kind of side effects.”
Not wanting to be fixated by fears or by the disease, June kept her condition to herself and dealt with it in a level-headed way. “I’m quite practical,” she explains. “I just do what needs to be done to achieve a certain goal. Not everything is within our control, and I think as long as we maintain composure, it allows us to make rational decisions. Excessive worrying is not going to help in any situation.”
She relates this mindset to her crisis management training in intensive care and anaesthesia. “We have patients coming in after road traffic accidents or in crisis, and you cannot be distracted by the blood or the multiple things happening. You cannot panic and be emotional in these situations. You have to deal with it with a cool head and in a very systematic way.”
Rather than worry, June chose to carry on doing activities she liked. Even while going through treatment, she kept busy online with meetings for her various volunteer organisations, attending courses and ordering food delivery for loved ones. “I’m just grateful for the fact that I could still find ways to enjoy myself and also share them with family and friends,” she adds. “I guess I just focus on all the positive things and then take things one step at a time. Whatever happens, just deal with it as it comes.”
Uplifting herself through others
Continuing to be involved in volunteer work helped June through tough times and even now, she lights up when she talks about the many causes she is passionate about. One of the highlights of this past year was the successful conclusion of her presidency at ACWO, which advocates for women’s issues in the Asean region. “We managed to push through and achieve what we set out to do despite the challenges of Covid-19,” June elaborates. “Everyone was still very enthusiastically wanting to meet online and contribute towards the shared cause, which was heartening.”
With the SCWO, June also works to raise awareness and help various vulnerable groups. In 2021, the focus was on pressing issues related to ageing and violence against women. Seniors have been more isolated since the pandemic and the loneliness can take a toll on their mental health. The SCWO’s Ageing Task Force is carrying out several initiatives to help seniors stay better connected, such as partnering with NTUC Health Nursing Homes to launch a befriender programme, “Adopt a Grandparent”, which pairs seniors with someone to speak to.
“I’ve always wanted to focus on how we can help society and the most vulnerable. That’s what really helped me; I just don’t focus on myself. There are many other people whom I’d rather help.”
In 2022, another big focus for the doctor will be the promotion and championing of green anaesthesia and sustainability at SingHealth. As a healthcare worker, she witnesses first-hand the amount of waste the industry produces, especially during the pandemic. “We’re looking at ways to be more sustainable and working to change wasteful mindsets and habits,” she says.
Some initiatives include recycling and reusing hand sanitiser bottles, reusing sterile paper coverings for gowns as waterproof coverings for procedures, and repurposing clean discarded gowns into carrier bags.
Reflecting on the challenges of the last two years, June has a newfound appreciation for her family and loved ones, who have been a great pillar of support. Health and self-care have also become a bigger priority. “In the past I would try to squeeze too much in a day, or sometimes feel that I need to do many things to oblige friends. Now I have to put my health first.”
In the coming year, she hopes to travel again – both for her volunteer work and for leisure. “My son is graduating and I would like to go to his graduation ceremony. My daughter will be graduating as well and it will be interesting to see what she’s going to do next,” she remarks.
There is no telling what else 2022 will bring, but, for June, continuing to engage with and be involved in her different communities energises her for the road ahead. “I’m not just contributing to the community. I’ve really gained a lot from these people I’ve met, especially the strong women I work with,” adds June. “Everyone has such a good attitude and this positivity rubs off on you. I want to keep surrounding myself with these amazing, driven people.”
FASHION DIRECTION & STYLING: JOHNNY KHOO | ART DIRECTION: LEE KUAN LENG | PHOTOGRAPHY: CHER HIM | HAIR: JIMMY YAP/KIMISTRY, USING DYSON | MAKE-UP: WEE MING, USING CHANEL BEAUTY | PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANCE: JAN KHOO & LIP CHIN | FASHION ASSISTANCE: JACQUIE ANG & CHUA JUN XIAN
This story first appeared in the January 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.