He was shy and introverted and did not know how to interact with Aids patients or how to address their condition.
But he could tell they were hurting not just from the disease but also from being abandoned by their families and friends.
So he started a group who massage and comfort such patients to let them know they are not alone.
After doing it for more than a decade, he is being recognised for his work. Associate Professor Albert Teo, 54, is the director of the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
He first came to know about the plight of HIV/Aids patients when he was studying for his doctorate in Berkeley, California, in the early 1990s.
He said: "Many of them were isolated because of the stigma that went with the disease."
In 2001, he started Touch Therapy at the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) wards here, where volunteers massaged HIV/Aids patients every Saturday.
For his 14 years of dedication, he received the inaugural Singapore Patient Advocate Award (Individual) yesterday. It is part of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Singapore Patient Action Awards, presented for the first time this year.
Nine recipients were picked from out of over 60 nominations and they received their awards from Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min yesterday.
Prof Teo said the massages do not just relieve joint stiffness and improve mobility.
He said: "More than that, touch therapy also conveys the important message of love and acceptance.
"Many of them are rejected by family and friends and to have a stranger massage them, it is a form of acceptance."
Prof Teo told The New Paper that he and some friends volunteered a lot while in California in the early 1990s.
That was when HIV/Aids sufferers were routinely blamed for their condition, especially if they had contracted the disease through sex or drug use.
One of the organisations they volunteered with was the San Francisco Aids Foundation. That was where Prof Teo learnt how lending a sympathetic ear and simply holding someone's hands could comfort them.
Seeing how HIV/Aids sufferers thrived and gained confidence from human interaction, Prof Teo wanted to start a similar programme here.
"But I was caught up with my career - getting tenure and promotion - (and) I did not have time until 2001," he said. He started volunteering at the CDC wards then.
"These people have been ostracised for so long that even a stranger's touch is healing, even to their spirit," he said.
One such patient is Richard (not his real name), 50. The former odd-job labourer frequented Batam to visit prostitutes after his divorce and got infected with the Aids virus.
"I found out when I had a fever that would not go away. I was tested when I was admitted to hospital and was diagnosed then," he said.
DARE NOT TELL
"I dare not let my family and friends know. Only my mother knows," he said.
Richard said it was through Touch Therapy that he got to know Prof Teo.
He said: "He doesn't look at us with coloured glasses and he talks to us like we are friends. He always has a smile for everyone and many of the patients look forward to Saturdays."
Besides becoming friends with many patients, Prof Teo has helped to raise funds for their care, secured jobs for some and even attended their funerals when they died.
He has taken Touch Therapy beyond HIV and Aids. He and his group of volunteers also visit step-down care institutions to massage elderly patients with dementia.
This article was first published on Oct 31, 2015.
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