By Amanda Lee, Writer; Anne Loh, Assistant Director; and Nicole Lim, Science Writer, Communications & Outreach
Like American poet Edgar Lee Masters, we are familiar with “the silence of the stars and of the sea”, but few of us would have heard “the silence of the city when it pauses”. Yet as many of us were tucked away at home for the good of the community during Singapore’s circuit breaker period, front-line staff set out through the empty streets to work, securing buildings, sanitising spaces, ensuring that everything functioned and, of course, delivering care to those who need it.
Sparkling with motherly pride
Despite the medical school's darkened offices, silent teaching spaces and empty research labs, work and learning at LKCMedicine didn’t stop. As the School community gradually returns to campus, we take a moment to pay tribute to those in our #OneLKC family who kept the medical school going – whether from home, on campus or in hospitals and community care facilities. While the battle against Covid-19 is far from over, we say Thank you to our very own frontliners whose dedication and commitment upheld the LKCMedicine banner over the last few months.Longer days, wider work scope
In the middle of the enhanced circuit-breaker measures when hardly a soul was on campus, it fell to Mr Gamage Kumudu Sudesh to top up the liquid nitrogen in a tank on Level 18 of the Clinical Sciences Building when the tank ran low. Normally, a member of the lab or the supplier would fill up the tank, but with stringent circuit-breaker measures in place that was not an option.
Tasks such as these as well as twice-daily checks on all the facilities fell to the mechanical and electrical maintenance officer and one other colleague. Without a technician to call on, it was all hands on deck when something broke down. Faulty glass doors and toilets were among the issues that Mr Sudesh had to contend with.
With the building virtually empty, Mr Sudesh also paid special attention to the critical lab areas, checking that all the fridges, freezers and other running equipment were working well.
One unexpected challenge at the end of April was the setting up of a diagnostic laboratory on the School’s premises. Delivery and installation of equipment all had to be done while adhering to the physical distancing rules and required unusually complex coordination. But that too, Mr Sudesh took in his stride.
“We had to coordinate many things with Dr Sini (Mathew) and Mr (Tan) Hee Kiang, but we never missed anything,” said Mr Sudesh.
Madam Fauziah binti Ahmad has worked at LKCMedicine since 2017. Currently, the cleaning team leader is in charge of Levels 3, 8 and 20 of the Clinical Sciences Building. During the recent circuit breaker period, Mdm Fauziah was among 13 cleaning staff deployed at LKCMedicine’s Novena campus who kept the campus clean and sanitised.
Reflecting on her duties, Mdm Fauziah noted that not much had changed in her scope of work. Frequently used spaces or often-touched objects such as lift buttons and door handles had to be cleaned at least three times a day instead of just twice. She was also careful to follow all the rules on safe distancing and personal protection.
“To me, it is like how you do your housework. I treat this place just like my house,” she said.
Working under extra pressure
But there was one thing she found hard: the emptiness of the levels, which students would usually fill with chatter and energy.
“I feel lonely. They are like my children,” said Mdm Fauziah, who was particularly moved by the messages she received from students asking how she was doing.
From 14 security staff, the team was down to just eight on the Novena campus during the circuit breaker period. Five on the day shift and three on the night shift. The officers on the day shift had to handle patrols, complete clocking to ensure all services were done on schedule, register and screen visitors, receive deliveries and man entrances. So even though visitors and staff were fewer in numbers, with the leaner teams and additional security measures, the work kept the team running at full capacity.
“It was very tight, sometimes we had to skip or delay our lunch,” said Security Supervisor Mr A Sri Bala, who added that the paperwork had also increased during the circuit breaker.
Finding last-minute cover for officers who called in unwell also added pressure to the skeleton crew.
“Normally when we were short-staffed, I would try to cover the additional shift,” said Mr Bala, but during the circuit breaker period that was not possible.
The phantom worker
While working on the medical school’s campus is generally a smooth experience, the changed working conditions during the circuit breaker also brought out challenges.
“This was the first time in my security experience that I had gone through that much pressure,” said Mr Bala.
While the circuit breaker period holds few fond memories for him, Mr Bala was touched by the many gestures of kindness he received. The Ramadan meal and goodie bags gifted by LKCMedicine’s Muslim staff, students and friends stood out in particular.
"It is nice to feel appreciated and thought of," he said.
That’s how long it takes Joe Shim to commute to work at the Clinical Sciences Building. During the recent circuit period, however, he was able to use that hour to lift weights and cycle, at home.
“It is nice to have a mini ‘gym’ at home and I am happy for the extra hour to exercise in peace in the comfort of my own home,’ said Mr Shim, a Senior Assistant Manager of IT & Telepresence at LKCMedicine.
While he may have been able to count his commute in footsteps rather than MRT stops, Mr Shim’s circuit-breaker work duties sent him to the cloud to keep LKCMedicine’s vital IT and e-learning systems running smoothly. Mr Shim played a pivotal role in ensuring that the School’s virtual Team-Based Learning (e-TBL) ran without glitches.
Using a checklist before each e-TBL session, Mr Shim and his colleagues ensured that the network and server were fully functional so faculty and students could focus on the lesson.
“I always mentally prepare myself during the trial sessions. It helps me focus and draw upon past experiences to identify and address issues before the actual e-TBL session begins,” said Mr Shim.
Working from his bedroom, Mr Shim checked the School-issued computers were backed up securely. He also provided technical assistance to LKCMedicine staff, as well as those from NTU, NIE and NTU Shared Services.
“If there were any problems or if any staff required help, I made it a point to resolve these first before continuing with my other projects,” said Mr Shim.
While he is back in the office these days, Mr Shim thanks his mother for her unwavering support by cooking meals and ensuring that he ate lunch every day while working from home.
"When we can finally dine out again, I am definitely bringing her to a nice restaurant for a meal," he added.
Leading by example
Cleaning Supervisor Daud bin Ismail saw his team's workload increase during the Covid-19 outbreak. Lift buttons and handrails, lobby and common areas like temperature screening stations as well as door handles and floors are cleaned at 8am, 11am and again at 4pm.
Meeting rooms and teaching areas, too, were cleaned with a special cleaning product, even when the campus lay quiet during the recent circuit breaker period.
Mr Daud took on many of these additional duties because he wanted to play his part in protecting the students, faculty and staff in whatever way he could from the virus. He would often stay behind so that his colleagues with families wouldn't have to.
While carrying out his duties, he also made sure to keep his team members and himself safe. All the cleaning staff are required to don masks and gloves, wash their hands more often and avoid touching their faces. They keep their distance from each other even during breaks.
What impressed him was how the wider team from the School's Operations team to Cisco and his cleaning team came together. "We all played a part in protecting everyone," said Mr Daud.
The additional work did mean that everyone felt more tired.
"But no matter how tired I am, being able to protect the School and the people, I am happy with my job to provide a clean and safe environment for all," said Mr Daud.We are family
“I (currently) work as a medical officer at the Singapore Expo Community Care Facility,” said Dr Huang Baoxian, who helps care for the thousands of Covid-19 positive patients – many of whom are migrant workers – who need continued observation and isolation but only have mild symptoms.
Touched by human sincerity and kindness
“I feel honoured to be taking care of our migrant worker brothers during this difficult time of Covid-19. It opened my eyes to their stories and resilience to leave their hometowns to come to Singapore to make a living for themselves and their family,” said Dr Huang, who is among LKCMedicine’s inaugural cohort of graduates. As well as being in a job she’s passionate about, the experience made her all the more appreciative of her own family.
“The patients often call the staff ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. I feel like we are family when I hear them call me ‘sister’. They are always appreciative of our work and never fail to thank us after every consultation,” she said. “My own family has been very supportive during this time. My mother cooks for me every day and makes sure I am well taken care of.”
At KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital, doctors take turns caring for Covid-19 patients and those who are suspected to have the infection and Dr Lee Cheok Hon is no exception. Regardless of where he’s posted to, though, the majority of this recently promoted medical officer’s time is spent on ensuring that the tasks decided on during the morning rounds are executed by the end of the day. He also provides support and oversight to the house officers and tutors the medical students on his team.
While there is an element of stress working under Covid-19 conditions, Dr Lee said this is not so much due to the danger of the virus itself as having to explain the restrictions on visitors to the parents and caregivers of his young patients. “It is cruelly ironic that in these moments when social interaction may be most needed, it is to be denied for the greater good,” said the LKCMedicine Class of 2019 graduate.
At a time when interactions between humans have to be at arm’s length, it is the human touch shown in other ways that lift his spirit. The sincerity and kindness of his young patients’ parents and his senior colleagues lighten Dr Lee’s mood.
“There are a few precious gems who would go the extra mile in appreciating our efforts in working on the frontlines to look after their children,” he said. “And senior colleagues on the frontlines showing true leadership, working to minimise their juniors’ exposure to virus-positive patients and boosting team morale with little things such as snacks and quick chats.”
New ways of doing things
Like Mr Sudesh, Mr Chan Kok Seng helmed the facilities maintenance work every other week. From walkthroughs to ensure all the lab equipment was functioning to non-flushing toilets and accidental faults of mechanical and electrical systems, his role expanded beyond his expertise in electrical and fire protection maintenance.
But rather than grousing about the extra work, Mr Chan was pleased that he and his team could demonstrate their commitment by going the extra mile and taking on whatever job needed doing. Troubleshooting, for example, became more wide-ranging, said Mr Chan. He recalled how he worked with LKCMedicine Senior Assistant Manager for Health & Safety Mr Sowpati Jayaker via video call to manage deliveries and clearing of biohazard waste with the key vendor through which Mr Jayaker guided him successfully, albeit remotely.
“The staff are just wonderful,” said Mr Chan, who also remained on standby for his colleagues to consult via video if electrical faults happened during his week off.
The onsite support from members of the LKCMedicine Operations & Resources team is another aspect that Mr Chan appreciated. Each morning, they would go through the day’s specific instructions.
“Because Mr Tan Hee Kiang, Mr Gary Lee and Dr Sini (Mathew) also came down, we felt extra motivated,” said Mr Chan.
Another unexpected outcome of the circuit breaker period was that the outbreak created a more close-knit, if physically distant, working environment. Facilitating the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) training for the LKCMedicine Year 4 students back in April was one example of this great new teamwork, said Mr Chan. Guided by the LKCMedicine Ops team, the shift team worked closely with the security and cleaning teams to ensure students entered safely, underwent the whole-day training while adhering to all necessary safety measures and then departed individually or in small groups after their training. After they left, the cleaning team conducted a thorough wipe down of all surfaces “for everyone’s good”, said Mr Chan.
Open the doors of communication
Bidding goodbye to students as he made his way out of the Learning Studio on February 3, Emmanuel Tan never thought it would be the last time in a long while he would see the Year 1 medical students in person.
Now, four months later, Mr Tan still cherishes that moment. While classes continued during circuit breaker, he has only seen the students online during the weekly e-Team-Based Learning (TBL) sessions and in one-to-one virtual meetings as a House Tutor.
While the switch to online learning was smooth, Mr Tan, who is the Lead for Educational Engagement at LKCMedicine, had to tweak his facilitating style.
A TBL session involves the teamwork of facilitators like Mr Tan as well as the content experts, Digital Learning and Curriculum teams. Together, they fine-tune the lesson as it unfolds to meet the students’ learning needs.
Since moving online, instead of sticking their heads together about how to adjust the discussion based on the students' Individual Readiness Assessments (iRAs), Mr Tan and the context experts had to converse either over the phone or via WhatsApp group chat on how to take the TBL session further.
As well as with faculty, Mr Tan was in close contact with the student representative about how the session was going and to hear students’ immediate feedback.
As Deputy Lead for Student Wellbeing, Mr Tan also supported his students’ wellbeing during the circuit breaker period. Like TBL, Mr Tan arranged for the one-to-one meetings with students to take place using video conferencing tools.
“The most poignant experience must be the staunch support from faculty and staff who wholeheartedly gave their time and dedication to ensure the students’ wellbeing. It is important that we carry on and provide students with extra care and attention. Whilst these are stressful times, the clear purpose and meaning of supporting the students’ wellbeing kept me going,” he added.
Spotting the silver lining
Madam Sariffah binte Said carried on with her daily routine largely unchanged during the recent circuit breaker. Rostered on an alternate week schedule, Mdm Sariffah was glad to carry on with her work.
Without any activity on her assigned levels, she was able to mop and sanitise in one go.
“I didn’t have to rush to complete it during people’s lunch break,” said Mdm Sariffah.
Each day, she would take her time to work through the different rooms and facilities, taking pride in focusing on even the smallest task.
She cleaned and sanitised everything from the microphones in the Learning Studio to the volunteer health assessment rooms on Level 18 of the Clinical Sciences Building, focusing in particular on those high-frequency touchpoints.
“One hundred per cent, I can do everything very well,” she said.
During circuit breaker, Mdm Sariffah said everyone was very careful, adhering to the necessary safety precautions and focusing on their roles. Despite some things being easier with no activity in the building, Mdm Sariffah is looking forward to seeing everyone again on campus.
“I hope that I can see everyone again. I feel very lonely doing my work here,” she said.
Growing into her new role
Mrs Anjana Manimaran joined LKCMedicine as a Concierge Officer on January 29, six days after Singapore reported its first imported case of Covid-19. Just as she’d settled into her role at the medical school, welcoming staff, students and visitors alike, the circuit breaker put a stop to that.
During the circuit-breaker period, Mrs Anjana was in charge of the main entrance at the Clinical Sciences Building. Under normal circumstances, she would have had the company of a security officer with whom she would check everyone entering the building. But with a skeleton crew deployed during circuit breaker, Mrs Anjana was on her own.
“It made me take more responsibility and become more confident in my ability. I couldn’t just ask my colleague if I was unsure what do to,” she said. “And because fewer people came, I also got the chance to get to know them better.”
Fighting more than Covid-19
While she enjoyed making new friends, she missed the busy bustle of the campus and the company of her colleagues who were assigned to work in the alternate team. This alternating schedule and extended hours also left Mrs Anjana with mixed feelings about working during the circuit breaker as she missed out on a host of family occasions. She was on duty for her father’s birthday, her parents’ wedding anniversary and even Mother’s Day.
“This is the first year this has happened, but at least I managed to send her a bouquet,” she said.
Like most, Mrs Anjana is looking forward to a return of some form of normalcy. “I miss all the staff, and seeing the HQ empty is so sad,” she said.
Working close to the heart of the action in the fight against Covid-19 at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Emergency Department (ED) is Dr Aishwarya Narayanan. “Since the start of the pandemic, I get posted five or six times a month to shifts at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases where we work to figure out which patients need to be swabbed, admitted, discharged or decanted to isolation facilities,” she said.
Working on the frontline during this pandemic has given this young doctor renewed confidence in Singapore’s healthcare system as well as her peers. “I feel it has definitely prepared us better to attend to any potential future pandemics,” she said.
While the Covid-19 situation may be what’s on everyone’s mind, Dr Narayanan, who graduated from LKCMedicine in 2018, is clearly focused on the needs of the patients who are rushed to the ED. “Our job in the ED is to rule out any life-threatening emergencies – still as important, if not more so now!”
Bracing for a marathon of balance
To Facilities Manager Damien Liew, the Novena campus was exceptionally silent during the eight weeks of the recent circuit breaker. But fewer people did not necessarily mean less work for him and his team. Electrical and mechanical maintenance, cleaning, landscaping and security services all had to be carried out – just with a leaner team.
“We had to be more efficient with our manpower resources. Things like regular monthly maintenance had to be planned more carefully because we didn’t have the full team in,” said Mr Liew. “We really just had hands and legs and everyone had to chip in.”
But it was no hardship to him. It was simply a matter of taking responsibility and doing his job. Many on his team are seasoned professionals who have seen previous pandemics or who have worked in the healthcare sector, like Mr Liew.
He previously worked at a public hospital in Singapore, where the infection control department would conduct regular pandemic preparedness exercises. Now, he's drawing on the lessons learnt during those drills, such as where best to screen people and making sure the flow of people through a building is one-directional.
“It is like holding a kitchen knife. If you know how to use it properly and protect yourself, then you won’t cut yourself,” he said.
To Mr Liew, whether it is before or after the circuit breaker makes little difference to his work.
“Even after the circuit breaker is over and the School reopens, we will have to carry on, implementing new guidelines when they come out. It is going to be a marathon,” said Mr Liew.