S'pore nurse on how she guides patients on their cancer journey

PHOTO: S'pore nurse on how she guides patients on their cancer journey

SINGAPORE - It was an aunt who inspired Ms Koh Sze Fui to become a nurse.

Then a teenager, Ms Koh saw how her aunt stepped up to care for her mother, who is Ms Koh's grandmother, who had fallen and broken her leg.

She was also impressed by how her aunt, who is now 65 and retired, was able to help other family members with their health issues.

As a 17-year-old nursing student, she resolved to work in the field of oncology when a church friend of the same age was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

These days, the nurse clinician at Johns Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre is a pillar of support to patients diagnosed with different types of cancer at different stages.

Aside from nursing duties, the 37-year-old also oversees training programmes for nurses who want to learn cancer care.

It is a tough and demanding field, she said. "We can provide emotional comfort to patients but, sometimes, we are unable to relieve their physical pain. That breaks our hearts every time, even after I have been an oncology nurse for 14 years."

Ms Koh is married to a 39-year-old logistics controller with the Republic of Singapore Air Force. They have four children aged six to 13.

I specialise in caring for cancer patients because...

Cancer is a leading cause of death in Singapore, with 14 people dying from it every day.

Knowing this, it is very important for cancer patients to receive all the necessary treatment and care, and I want to be able to help as many of them as possible.

Oncology nursing is fascinating because…

Cancer treatment is always evolving. I get to learn and adapt to new procedures, such as targeted cancer therapy - killing cancer cells without harming normal cells.

I am not only involved in the physiological aspect of patient care, such as ensuring a patient's blood pressure is acceptable, but also catering to their psychosocial needs.

For instance, I help families to come to terms with the cancer diagnosis and to cope with the challenges that come with it.

One little known fact about cancer patients is...

Some can be resilient and survive against the odds. Even if they are told that they have only a certain period of time left, we still see patients who outlive this prognosis.

If I were to give an analogy for what I do, I would be a...

Navigator who guides patients and their families in their journey through the complex health-care system.

I make timely assessments, ease patients' discomfort and connect them to the right health-care professionals; for instance, to a medical social worker if the patient requires financial assistance.

A typical day...

Starts with waking up at around 5.30am to get my children ready for school. I reach my workplace at around 7.45am.

At work, I spend 60 per cent of my time attending to patients in the wards. I also do administrative work, plan the education calendar for staff and monitor nursing standards to see that they are met.

I train new nurses in oncology care, ensure all nurses are competent in areas such as the administration of chemotherapy and instil in them hospital policies. I also guide and counsel nurses who are emotionally burnt out.

I leave my workplace at 6pm. At home, I catch up with my family on their day, supervise my children's homework and watch television.

On Saturdays, I attend church with my family. We take part in family activities, such as going to the zoo or cycling, on Sundays.

I have come across all types of cases...

With patients ranging in age from 14 to 80. Among them are those who are diagnosed early and able to receive curative treatment and those who have their disease discovered late and can only opt for palliative care.

I remember a British man, around 40 years old, who was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. His doctors in his home country had given up on him, yet we worked with him to fight the cancer for nine years, using multiple lines of chemotherapy and surgery.

Sadly, he died two years before he could see his son graduate from college. I will always be reminded of his never-say-die attitude.

I love patients who...

Think positive despite their situation. For example, there was a man with pancreatic cancer who would entertain everyone with his life stories even as he was undergoing chemotherapy. He knew that he had little time left to live - but still, he found the inner peace to face each day cheerfully.

He died recently. I am proud of him because he had lived his life to the fullest.

People who get my goat are...

Patients who do not comply with treatment, like those who are admitted for severe pain but still refuse to take painkillers.

We always try to understand the reasons for their refusal - normally, it has to do with fear of the regimen - and explain the treatment options available to create a win-win situation for everyone.

Things that put a smile on my face are...

When I see the smiles on my patients' faces. This indicates that they are feeling good and not experiencing pain and that their bodies are responding to treatment.

It breaks my heart when...

I see patients in pain and I'm unable to provide comfort.

There are instances when medication is not enough to alleviate discomfort. Even the simplest tasks can cause excruciating pain, such as turning their bodies while they are lying in bed. But we have to do it to prevent bed sores from developing and to maintain basic hygiene.

I would not trade places for the world because...

Nursing is a noble job and more so when you are in the field of oncology. It gives me satisfaction to be a part of the journey with patients and their families.

My best tip is...

Cancer patients should know that cancer does not define who they are or who they should be.

I constantly encourage them to remain focused on what they can do, rather than on what they can't.

My best tip for caregivers of cancer patients is to love yourself - while you're caring for your loved ones, don't forget about your own needs. Caregivers need care, too.

joanchew@sph.com.sg


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