This chief nurse ensured her nurses were well cared for during the pandemic

Dr Hoi Shu Yin.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The chief nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital made sure that staff could carry out their duties safely during the Covid-19 pandemic

When she was tasked with getting the hospital ready to receive Covid-19 patients, Dr Hoi was certain of two things. One, they were in for the long haul. Two, the facilities would need to cater to the staff’s needs, so they can work with a peace of mind. 

Together with other nurse leaders, she made sure there’s adequate shower, resting and dining areas for staff. That was crucial to Dr Hoi, because many of the staff were working tremendously hard to cope with the surge in patients. 

“She shows genuine care for us,” attests Dionne Liew, a senior nurse manager at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). 

To understand where Dr Hoi’s compassion for the nurses under her charge comes from, one only needs to look at her career background.

Having rose through the ranks, from junior nurse in 2003, to getting her nursing doctorate qualification in 2018, to becoming chief nurse this year, she understands their struggles all too well. 

And although her day-to-day duties have more to do with workflow, manpower, and the hospital’s operations, she still remembers what it feels like to be part of the front line in the midst of a viral outbreak.

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For those who can recall, the Sars outbreak 17 years ago had claimed the lives of 33 people in Singapore, including healthcare professionals. 

“I had some fear as a young nurse, but believed in the competency of the management. Now that I’m in a management position, I tried to do whatever I could to give the nurses on the ground the same kind of confidence,” says Dr Hoi. 

Transformed two floors into Covid-19 wards

PHOTO: Her World Online

Together with her team, Dr Hoi had only three days to transform the wards. On top of infrastructural changes, the nurses were also given special training, including drills on emergency resuscitation and transport routes.

Everyone, including doctors, pharmacists, housekeepers, porters and security personnel were also given orientation tours so that they could quickly familiarise themselves with the new set-up. 

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When it came to crunch time, she also rolled up her sleeves to lend a helping hand to ensure that the Covid-19 patients were correctly identified and assigned to the right beds. Despite the long hours, she took it all in her stride.

“We knew that we were prepared and that we have the best professionals. There wasn’t a point where I felt that things were difficult – it was just a matter of responding to what needed to be done,” she says. 

One particular area of concern for her was the adequate training of nurses, so that they could carry out their duties safely. 

“It’s intuitive for doctors and nurses to want to quickly attend to patients when their conditions are rapidly deteriorating, but it’s essential that they are properly equipped first. If one healthcare staff is down, we lose the opportunity to take care of other patients, so we need to make sure that they don’t ever sacrifice themselves, no matter the situation.”

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Together with 26 other nursing directors, a roster of ward rounds was developed. This not only ensured that there was leadership presence during a period of uncertainty, but also allowed for the 3,600 nurses under them to approach management directly should they have any concerns.

When asked about the most difficult thing for her during this period, Dr Hoi’s answer speaks volumes about her leadership style. For her, it was seeing the pain that some of her nurses went through after being separated from their families due to Covid-19. 

“There are nurses recruited from neighbouring countries with young children and elderly parents back home. When the travel restrictions were put in place, they were unable to go back to visit them,” she explains, barely hiding a crack in her voice.

“It wasn’t a problem we could resolve, and we didn’t know when the doors would open again. We just had to find ways to support them.”

Took up nursing due to circumstance

Dr Hoi might have been in nursing for 19 years now, but she’s candid about the fact that she didn’t always have her sights set on it. In fact, she got into the field by chance: Upon finding out that she was eligible for a Public Service Commission Scholarship, she looked at the list of programmes and landed on healthcare because she wanted a job with more human interaction.

“My dad passed away when I was in my first year of junior college. I wanted to minimise the financial burden on my mum, so I decided to take up one of the courses available that also gave me the opportunity to study overseas,” she reveals. Soon after, she left to pursue a nursing degree with honours at King’s College London.

“At some point, I grew to genuinely love it. During my final year, I was posted to the haematology unit at St George’s Hospital, and it was especially amazing to see the kind of support the nursing team gave the patients.”

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Upon completion of the four-year programme, she joined TTSH. She was later seconded to the Ministry of Health, and then pursued a Masters in Knowledge Management at Nanyang Technological University. 

In 2016, she embarked on a long-distance doctorate programme in nursing practice at Duke University School of Nursing. She was awarded her doctorate in 2018 and in October this year, became chief nurse.  

“She has come a long way – she went through a difficult family situation during her JC years, and an extended period of overseas education before going into a challenging profession. All of these experiences have built her resilience,” says her husband, Dr Chua Horng Ruey, a nephrologist (kidney doctor). 

“She has used her abilities to constantly improve the lives of the nurses under her care,” he adds.

This admiration is echoed by senior nurse manager Dionne, who has known her for close to a decade.

“She helps us grow and truly wants to see us succeed, whether in our personal development or work achievements,” she says.  

Helping nurses make time for their families

When asked if her family was worried about her during the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak here, Dr Hoi says that there wasn’t much talk about fear as her husband shares her confidence in the system here.

“He’s more patient-facing than I am, so he would take precautions like showering before coming home. My three kids knew about what was happening from school, and would also hear us discussing the situation from time to time, but they weren’t too worried about us getting infected,” she adds. Two of her children are in primary school, while one is in secondary school. 

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“I’d say the bigger problem was our diminishing presence at home, since we needed to work late nights and through the weekends to manage the surge response. Plus, with home-based learning, my husband and I realised that we had to be more involved to make sure that the kids complete their assignments, so we had to find ways to work around that.” 

She lets on that her kids would also playfully compete for her attention with her phone. 

“My kids got jealous as I gave my phone more attention during that time, so they’d try to hijack it,” she recalls with a laugh. 

“They also knew I was more distracted, so they would ask to do things that I typically wouldn’t allow them to do, like playing games or watching TV!” 

Having gone through these experiences as a working mother, Dr Hoi is making it her mission to make the lives of the nurses under her care easier.  

“Our staff constantly run the risk of burning out, so we are always thinking of how we can better take care of them,” she says.

“Apart from, say, imparting mindfulness techniques to them, we hope to be able to enable them to leave work on time. It’s all about prioritising what needs to be done, so they can go back and do things like have dinner with their families.”

This article was first published in Her World Online.