Walking the talk

Ms Lew Fong Lin, a senior staff nurse at National University Hospital.
PHOTO: Walking the talk

I specialise in caring for patients with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids) because...

I feel for this cause and am a volunteer with AidsLink International working with HIV patients.

My calling was confirmed when I started working in this field full-time as an HIV specialist nurse.

The immune system is fascinating because…

It is akin to a military system with different forces - the navy, army and air force - to protect the nation.

Likewise, our body's immune system comprises different armies of white blood cells that work together to protect us from infections.

The two basic types of these germ-fighting cells are phagocytes - which chew up invading germs - and lymphocytes, which allow the body to remember and recognise previous invaders.

When a person is infected with HIV, the virus attacks one of the lymphocyte subsets (called CD4 cells) and causes the body to lose its ability to fight certain infections.

One little known fact about HIV/Aids is…

It is not as contagious as people may think. There is no cure for the condition at the moment, but treatment is readily available.

Many of my patients and friends who are infected with HIV are functioning as efficiently as any other healthy person in the community.

In fact, anyone sitting beside you in a cinema or on the MRT train could be living with HIV, but there there is no way you can get infected by being in the same place, sharing the same air or even through exposure to his saliva.

A typical day for me…

Starts at about 8am with a good cup of coffee and sandwich to ignite my engine, while I sit in front of my computer.

I need to check if there are patients with HIV being admitted to the hospital that day or any newly diagnosed case referred to my department.

Two of us take turns to man a 24-hour helpline for our patients to keep in touch with us. We respond to their enquiries, do counselling and offer social support or relay their messages to doctors.

On some days, I conduct teaching sessions on HIV care for other nurses and medical students.

I have come across all types of cases...

With patients from different walks of life and each with his own story.

Some of these patients have good support from their families and friends, while others do not.

Some respond to their diagnosis with a positive spirit, while others struggle.

Some are motivated to keep themselves healthy and adhere to treatment plans, while a small number fall into deep depression.

I love patients who...

Show great courage to continue their journey despite their HIV infection. I also admire those who allow themselves to be cared for by others and, at the same time, do their best to take care of themselves.

People who get my goat are...

Those who show a lack of compassion and are judgmental of people infected with or affected by HIV.

We should not forget that these patients are someone's parent, spouse, child, sibling or friend.

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

Seeing patients smile or laugh despite their condition.

I try to elicit these by injecting humour in my interactions with them and during my training sessions, which cover tips such as putting on a condom correctly to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to a partner and to prevent the spread of another HIV strain to an infected partner.

It breaks my heart when...

Patients have so much fear of revealing their condition to their loved ones, even right up to their final days of life.

Eventually, their family members have to be informed in order to make funeral arrangements.

Most patients would have their reservations at the initial stage of diagnosis and we respect their decision, though we continue to encourage them to break the news.

When they are ready to come clean with their families, we are there to support them and answer their family members' queries.

It is also painful to see family members being dealt a double blow - newfound knowledge of the patient's HIV diagnosis and grief at losing a loved one.

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

I am more in touch with human struggles through my work with people infected with or affected by HIV/Aids, which also brings nursing beyond the four walls of an institution.

My best tip...

To protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections and HIV, follow these steps, which can be easily remembered as "ABCD".

A: Abstain from sex until you get married.

B: Be faithful to your spouse.

CCC: Use condoms consistently and correctly.

DDD: Don't get drunk or drugged.

BIO BOX

Ms Lew Fong Lin

AGE: 44

OCCUPATION: Senior staff nurse at National University Hospital

The gentle ways of a nurse who cared for Ms Lew's mother after an operation at Mount Alvernia Hospital left an indelible impression when Ms Lew was 12 and planted the seed of her interest in nursing.

She applied for and received a nursing scholarship with Mount Alvernia Hospital after her A level examinations in 1988.

As a student nurse, she was trained at five public hospitals before she graduated in 1992 with a certificate in general nursing.

Her interest in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) began when she cared for an HIV-positive patient at the then-Toa Payoh Hospital.

Less than a month after he was discharged, she saw him on an MRT train. It struck her that HIV patients "can be regular people in our midst".

A few years later in another hospital, she saw health-care workers and their family members filled with fear when they realised a patient they cared for had HIV.

Ms Lew knew the fear was unnecessary and stemmed from a lack of understanding of the disease.

Wanting to change this, she joined a non-governmental organisation, AidsLink International, in 2007, to create awareness about HIV and Aids in Singapore and Malaysia. That year, she also went to Thailand for further training in HIV/Aids nursing.

She now conducts workshops for HIV patients, covering topics such as the correct ways to reduce the risk of transmission.

Last Wednesday, she was recognised for her work with HIV/Aids patients by being one of 76 winners of the Healthcare Humanity Awards, given to health-care professionals who go the extra mile.

She is single and lives with her parents. She has a younger brother and a younger sister, who are both married.

This article was first published on May 22, 2014. Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.