Confessions of a CDC social worker: Cabbies afraid to take me to work

SINGAPORE - She avoids telling cab drivers the exact location of her workplace.

The stigma attached to the Communicable Disease Centre (w) on Moulmein Road is just too much, confesses Miss Amanda Yap.

The 27-year-old recalls a taxi driver who refused to drive in. "He just told me he would drop me outside instead.

"Other times, I get a whole string of questions like, 'why do you want to work here ah, this one for ai zhi bing (Aids) right, HIV, then you not scared ah?'"

Although she is proud to do the job she does, the comments can get tiresome, says Miss Yap, whose job is to counsel patients with HIV and see to their needs, especially if they require financial aid from the Government.

A career in social work wasn't always on the cards for the cheerful and articulate woman, although her mother worked as one at a family service centre for many years.

She entered the National University of Singapore with the intention of reading economics because it seemed "the more financially rewarding" option.

"Somewhere along the way, it didn't feel fulfilling enough for a lifetime career," says Miss Yap, who graduated in 2008.

One of the biggest misconceptions others have about the job is that social workers are volunteers, she says with a laugh.

"People ask me, do I get paid? I don't do this out of my sheer goodwill, you know, I don't think I'll be able to manage."

These days, whenever she meets new people, she announces her occupation without hesitation, but she still gets a diverse range of responses when the term "HIV" comes up.

"I get a mixture of curiosity, shock, or just sheer horror. They ask, why you go and do this kind of job?" she says.

Supportive family

Supportive family

Thankfully, her family and boyfriend have been supportive.

"My boyfriend shows his support by listening intently when I talk about my day, asking genuine questions because he's interested and assuring me that I am doing enough for the people I'm helping. My work with people living with HIV has never been an issue to him," she declares.

HIV can be contracted through having unprotected sex with an infected partner and direct blood contact. It can also be passed from a mother to a child in the womb.

People with HIV progress to Aids - typically considered the final stage of HIV infection - when their immune system becomes seriously damaged.

Every person in Singapore diagnosed with HIV is referred to a medical social worker.

The sheer sensitivity of the diagnosis is something health authorities believe warrant social workers' attention.

Although HIV is a terminal illness, patients who lead a healthy lifestyle and take suitable medication can lead pretty normal lives, which may not be significantly shortened due to the disease, Miss Yap says.

The youngest client she has encountered was just 18, while the oldest was in his 80s.

Managing the stigma and discrimination HIV patients face is difficult, because it is "so intangible, yet so crippling". It is her job's greatest challenge.

"Sometimes, I'm all garang (enthusiastic) about changing the system, but I quickly hit road blocks because society is still quite conservative in this aspect," she says.

"For example, someone comes in and says, 'My boss let me go because he found out that I have HIV.' My first reaction is, 'Do you want me to speak to your boss?'

"But they don't want to make it a big deal...I learn to manage my frustration with the ignorance of society," she says candidly.

She confesses that she was occasionally driven to tears in the first year of her career and she'd run to the toilet for these emotional outbursts.

She has also been the target of verbal abuse like cursing and swearing, especially when her clients cannot accept their diagnosis.

"The nature of my job is such that I come in when people are emotionally high-strung, and I don't just mean sad.

"They are angry, but 99 per cent of the time they're not directing it at you it's because of what they're going through," she says.

An encounter she will never forget is with a client who got diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) and HIV at the same time.

"He wasn't married, had siblings and a mother. He was very open... sharing his life, the difficulties, his regrets, and so on.

"On the one hand it was very therapeutic, even for me to be hearing him and learning from his life.

"On the other hand, it was difficult journeying with someone you knew was going to die soon," she says.

Some time after his death, the client's sister visited Miss Yap to thank her on behalf of the family.

"I didn't realise my impact on him until after his death. She said, 'My brother was an introverted person but he did say that you are someone he connected with.' Having that said to me was like... wow... because I didn't have a chance to ask him how those sessions with me were actually helping him," she recounts.

These are the moments which keep her going, says this social worker, adding that she can't see herself doing any other job.

"I get this joy from hearing people talking about their lives. Stories of human resilience, love and how it can overcome illness. These stories inspire me and make me a better person," she says.

Secrets of the trade

Secrets of the trade

1 If you're not clear about a policy or rule, don't pretend to know and end up making promises.

A handy tip to "save face" is to excuse yourself from the session saying you need to get a form, then clarify details with your supervisor.

2 Get support. Venting over lunch to colleagues, even if it doesn't seem that productive, helps. We're all humans and even social workers need an outlet.

3 Don't be afraid to say sorry to your client. I've called some of them up on realising that some things I said did not come out the way I intended them to. They are usually very forgiving.

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