Battle scars

Now: Dr Chong, returning to the same area, remembers the Sars crisis as a "scary time".
PHOTO: Battle scars

SINGAPORE - The air was heavy with tension as Dr Wilson Chong stepped into Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

It was March 2003 and the first few severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) patients had just been warded.

"We were dealing with something unknown, something that we couldn't see, feel, smell or hear, and which was very deadly," said Dr Chong, then a junior specialist at the hospital. That's how the 46-year-old remembers the start of the Republic's four month battle with the severe form of pneumonia which eventually claimed 33 lives and infected 238 people here. His hospital was ground zero.

He was in the thick of the action, screening thousands of suspected Sars patients at an open-air space about the size of two basketball courts.

An image of him by former Straits Times photojournalist How Hwee Young walking out of the frame has been published and reproduced numerous times in the media. A patient, hands cupped to his face, is the grim central figure. "The patient was probably riddled with fear. I didn't even notice the photographer. It characterised our work then - we were rushing from one place to another to tend to patients."

The emergency physician, who was single then, added: "We had no social life and I couldn't go on dates." But his sacrifice was minute compared to his colleagues, he said. Some checked themselves into hotels and did not see their families for months as they feared catching the disease and passing it on.

The fear of catching Sars was all too real - he had already seen some of his colleagues succumb to the disease. Medical professionals had to take blood samples and resuscitate patients, which made them all the more vulnerable.

There was a slim margin for error.

"You didn't want to admit someone wrongly and expose the patient to the virus. We couldn't send an infected person back into society either," explained Dr Chong, who is now a senior consultant.

Some patients, angry and hysterical at the thought of being admitted, also acted out. He learned not to take the aggression personally. But there was a silver lining.

The country polished up its mass disaster and infectious disease protocols and policies. And Dr Chong later got to hone his expertise in disasters elsewhere.

Sars also united Singaporeans, and showed that the country could emerge stronger from its worst ever global health crisis.

Shortly after the Sars crisis ended, Dr Chong got his social life back on track.

At the end of the year, he met his wife, physiotherapist Sabrina, 36. The couple now have two boys aged four and seven.

Said Dr Chong: "I want to tell my story so future generations will know how various medical professionals pulled together to fight off the virus. There are many untold stories and unsung heroes. It's important that we chronicle them."

This article was first published on Aug 9, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.