Young and old close to her heart

Young and old close to her heart
Dr Uma Rajan, winner of the 5th tabla! Community Champion Award at the awards ceremony on Sep 24, 2015.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Dr Uma Rajan's name is widely associated with the health booklet that students use - with good reason, as she is behind the booklet that has become such a familiar sight to students. She was lauded for this by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2014 National Day Rally, as he thanked the pioneer generation for its contributions to the nation.

But the former director of School Health Services and director of Elder Care has a lot more than just the health booklet in her portfolio.

As director of School Health Services, Dr Rajan was instrumental in streamlining the school health screening and immunisation process and digitising students' records.

She also played a part in making the department more attractive to doctors. Initially, "the only doctors who wanted to come here were those who wanted to have babies", because they worked regular office hours.

She was with School Health Services from 1972 to 1998, first as a registrar and then as director. She was asked to head the Elder Care department in 1998, where she worked with voluntary welfare organisations to build nursing homes for the elderly and learnt more about their needs.

Coaxed out of retirement

Dr Rajan retired from the Ministry of Health in 2000, but was coaxed out of retirement to be executive director of the Man Fut Tong Nursing Home, a nursing home built by the Buddhist nun, Venerable Ho Yuen Hoe. She finally retired in 2008.

All this time, the 75-year-old has been actively involved in community work and fundraising, working with organisations like the Asian Women's Welfare Association (AWWA), Ramakrishna Mission and St Andrew's Mission Hospital, among many others.

She has also been hard at work at the grassroots level and holds several positions in Siglap South Community Centre (CC) - she is chairperson of the Siglap South Indian Activity Executive Committee, chairperson for the community arts and culture committee, vice-chairperson for the management committee, is an advisor for the People's Association's Life Skills and Lifestyle committee and is chairperson of her neighbourhood committee, to name but a few.

Many contributions

It is for her many contributions to Singapore in various capacities that tabla! has chosen Dr Rajan as this year's Community Champion, making her the first woman to hold the title since the award was launched in 2011.

She has indicated that the $10,000 cheque given by State Bank of India, be divided equally between the AWWA Home for Senior Citizens and Singapore Children's Society, two organisations that she has worked with and which have been close to her heart since the start of her career.

Dr Rajan is honoured by the award, which she considers "an endorsement by the community that what you did was right and needed". "That's how I see it - we wish you all the best in your future endeavours, don't stop serving the community, we need you, please continue to serve in whatever way you can," she says.

But she adds: "Why me? You are giving me this award, so what are your expectations of me now?"

The early years

Born in Singapore, Dr Rajan's childhood was spent in both Singapore and Chennai.

Her first trip to Chennai was in 1941 with her mother, a year after she was born. Her mother was then pregnant with Dr Rajan's brother. While they were in Chennai, Singapore was bombed, leaving them stranded there while her father, a general practitioner, was still in Singapore.

They were separated for five years, but during this time, the young Dr Rajan did not feel the lack of a father figure.

"I grew up with my extended family - my paternal grandparents, three paternal aunts and uncles and their children, two paternal uncles and their children," she explains, "so the role of a father was covered by my uncles and grandfather."

Meanwhile, her mother was preparing for what would happen if her father did not return.

Dr Rajan says that both her maternal and paternal grandparents were very forward-thinking about women. "They were for women's education, women's remarriage and women's career development, so I grew up in an atmosphere where the men considered women equal and where education was of prime importance not just for men but also for women," she says.

Thus, she is a firm believer that "women should always educate themselves, so that they think about economic independence for the future".

After the war ended, her father returned in 1946, and they moved back to Singapore.

Dr Rajan enrolled in St Margaret's School, where she studied for three years before going back to Chennai in 1949 to be with her grandparents, who were feeling lonely as their children had got married and left. She returned to Singapore in 1954 and did her O levels at St Margaret's.

Sickness that determined career

Her father's career as a general practitioner influenced Dr Rajan's decision to take up medicine. She studied medicine at the National University of Singapore and graduated in 1965 - which is also the year she got married.

Though she wanted a hospital career, life had other plans for her.

In 1966, she came down with a very severe case of jaundice that lasted 18 months.

"Forty-eight hours after I performed in an Indian mythological dance drama, I was hit with high fever," she explains.

"There were one or two other cases of severe jaundice in that time, but mine was the worst. The jaundice didn't subside, so the doctors had to open me up to see what was happening. I was given high doses of steroids, and there were complications from that as well. It took 1 ½ years to fully recover."

In that time, Dr Rajan had very little energy and stamina. So instead of pursuing a hospital career, she went into public health.

Her career with the Ministry of Health started out in the Maternal and Child Health Services department. As one of the only doctors in this department who could speak both English and Tamil, Dr Rajan held many talks, seminars and forums on childcare and women's health.

The doctor was posted to School Health Services as a registrar in 1972, after the birth of her son.

"I felt very proud that I had half a million children to take care of," she says.

She sat down to look at how the health checkups were being done, thought about what needed to be done, and how this could be revamped. These included basic things like a child's family history, height, weight, eyesight, colour vision and hearing.

Documenting all this information was another challenge. Before the health booklets, the documentation was done on big cards - white for boys and pink for girls.

Says Dr Rajan: "It was very difficult loading, unloading, packing and storing these cards, and there were chances of losing them or misplacing them."

That was when the idea of the health booklet came to her.

"The booklets were devised in such a way that apart from our documentation when we go to schools, there would be space for the family doctor or hospital doctors to make notes," she explains, adding that she felt their department should not be the ones to keep it.

That way teachers and parents could also look at them.

Writing in to the ministry for funding, the team got approval to print 40,000 books in the initial year. "We didn't want to replace everybody's cards," she explains, "so for the batch of Primary 1 students in that first year, we gave out health booklets. The Primary 2 students still had their cards, so as the Primary 1 students got older, the cards slowly got displaced by the booklets. It was just too difficult to implement the booklets for every year from the start."

First to digitise records

Dr Rajan also spearheaded computerising students' records in 1986: "We were the first to computerise in the world."

She adds proudly: "When I left School Health Services in 1998, it was computerised, the health booklets were going at full speed, there was a lot of research in the sector, doctors and nurses were going overseas for scholarships - we were on a par with the hospital sector in many ways."

It hasn't all been smooth sailing for Dr Rajan.

In 1977, her husband, who was a reservations manager for Air India, died of a heart attack.

"It was unexpected and sudden, and we lost him within an hour," says Dr Rajan.

She did not even have time to mourn. She was then 37 and had two young children and elderly parents to take care of, and no other blood relatives in Singapore. Five days after her husband's death, she had to clear his office, and two days later she was back at work. "The idea of work is worship played a lot in my mind," she says, adding that she immersed herself in her work to forget what had happened.

"I did it without realising that I was suppressing it, so reality didn't sink in. Sometimes I still feel like he might just walk through my door."

She adds: "At that particular time, the shock was too sudden, and my responsibilities were too heavy."

With the spotlight on the young widow, Dr Rajan says she tried to lead the life of a normal woman.

"I used to wear full white as a medical student and in the early years of my medical career. I loved the colour white. But somehow, after my husband died, I never liked the colour and I would always wear colours of some kind," she says.

Dr Rajan says community work has always been a part of her life.

Her parents were heavily involved in community work, which in those days involved a lot of fundraising. Her father was also a doctor for many of the Indian organisations here.

It was more than just fund raising, though.

Dr Rajan shares how she would help her parents distribute food and rations to the poor. "When there were floods in Potong Pasir, I used to go with my father to pull people out, even dead bodies, though I didn't realise what I was doing," she says.

Even in her area of medicine, "many times I met people who were underprivileged". "It's easy to tell them to have milk three times a day, but they didn't have money to buy even one meal," she says. "We had to look at alternative sources of funding - can we refer them to somebody else who will give them the funding, food or service they need? You needed to communicate with the community and know what was where so that you could tap into it when you're managing a patient."

Her training as a doctor also taught her to listen and observe, which has come in useful in her grassroots work as well.

Giving help discreetly

One of the areas Dr Rajan is passionate about is helping those who will not ask for help. "There's a large group who don't say what they need but are struggling. These people have to be identified and given silent help which doesn't disturb their dignity but solves the problem," she says.

Through her grassroots work, she meets residents of all kinds. This is where her listening and observing skills come in handy. "That's where you spot them, meet them, chat with them. They open up to you once you gain their confidence," she says.

The key to helping these people is to "find ways of helping them without realising they're getting something". "Make it as a general thing, like you're giving everybody," she explains. "When you celebrate festivals, give them goodie bags but don't single them out. Let them know that these options are available to them, don't make them feel like they're lacking."

With the time that she spends with Siglap South CC, Dr Rajan has a passion for forging friendships between residents.

"I love to see friendships blossom between the locals and the expatriates," she says.

Instances of these are prominent within the CC, with the various communities coming together to organise events.

"In a small country, it is important to have friends. Every age group needs to have friends, because nothing can replace the relationships that you can forge between family and friends," she adds.

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