Tan Tock Seng Hospital: A timeline of trials, triumph and tenacity

PHOTO: Facebook/TanTockSengHospital

Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) has been around for a long time: Founded in 1844 by philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, TTSH was first known as the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital and was located in Pearl’s Hill. The hospital moved to its fourth and current location at Novena in 2000.

And talk about having a storied past and a healthcare system built on the work and dedication of amazing healthcare workers who have helped Singapore tide through many a health crises, including tuberculosis in the 1900s and the outbreak of SARS in 2003.

In 2003, then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew made a stirring reference to our national pledge (in the context of SARS) in a speech he gave at his 80th birthday dinner, which was held at Shangri-la Hotel, saying:

"Since 1966, it has been recited in all school assemblies. 37 years on, our response to the SARS crisis as one united people gives us real hope that this pledge is not a dream.

''Now I ask you to join me in a toast to the citizens of Singapore, who pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation."

Today, TTSH faces yet another hurdle: the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But the hospital and its staff do not face it alone. We're all in this together - and we must do it as one united people.

A recent spate of discriminatory actions and remarks against TTSH staff prompted PM Lee Hsien Loong to create a Facebook post addressing the issue. In the post, he wrote: "Not only have they been fighting Covid-19, but some have also faced discrimination by members of the public. People are understandably fearful, but it is no less distressing to see."

He added: "We cannot let setbacks divide us or wear us down, because if we lose our unity, the virus has won."

Furthermore, he prompted Singaporeans to show a little kindness: "If you have some words of encouragement for loved ones in TTSH (staff or patient), please send TTSH a Facebook private message, which they will deliver on your behalf. Your thoughtful gesture will cheer them up and urge them on."

Read his full post below:

A ray of sunshine appeard this morning, as some kind souls created an encouraging banner (with a Chinese phrase that translates to "with our hands and heart, we’ll forge ahead, together”) and strung it up in the driveway of TTSH:

Even as we remember some of TTSH's biggest trials, triumphs and tenacity below, let us continue to give our utmost support to and applaud the efforts of every healthcare worker in Singapore.

After all, they are on the frontlines every day, risking their lives for this nation strong and free.

Dealing with tuberculosis in the 1900s

Tuberculosis (TB) may be deemed a dreaded disease of the past. Yet today, even in this era of antibiotics and medical advancement, TB is still with us. It has, in fact, claimed more lives in the history of mankind than any other infectious disease. There are some 8,000,000 new cases worldwide every year, with the largest number occurring in Asia.

Remember the "fire shot" aka the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine administered in school? Many of us would probably still carry the scar at the site of injection. It mainly protects young children against disseminated TB (disease in multiple parts of the body) and TB meningitis (disease in the fluid around the brain).

Senior Staff Nurse Pushpa, a long serving member at the TB Control Unit (TBCU) at TTSH set up in 1958, shared that back in the early days: "TB patients had to go through a long wait and treatment period and it was very hard to keep track of their self-medication.

Some were worried about the cost and would not turn up for their appointments. TBCU staff had to check on patients closely and call them up to arrange follow-up treatment or home visit. Now with shorter treatment periods and more financial assistance, patients are more motivated to complete the course”.

TB is still an ongoing epidemic around the world, but Singapore has effectively managed to minimise risks of another outbreak. Kudos to the healthcare system and workers, past and present!

Combating SARS - and prejudice - in 2003

The first Singaporean to contract SARS was hospitalised at TTSH in early March 2003 upon her returning from Hong Kong. All suspected cases of SARS were thereafter confined to a single hospital aka TTSH.

While Singapore swiftly and expertly managed the outbreak of SARS, our healthcare workers faced hardship not just from their daily work – they faced prejudice by people around them.

Taxis and even buses would not make a stop at the hospital, and their own neighbours refused to be in the same lift with them. At any packed food court, a seat would be reserved for a TTSH nurse. And those in a queue would disperse if a nurse joined it.

But the public began to rally together to show support for the healthcare workers. There was an outpouring of tributes for those on the SARS frontline. Slowly but surely, taxis and buses would turn up at the hospital, while Singapore General Hospital and Alexandra Hospital sent 18 and two nurses, respectively, to help the nurses at TTSH.

Our healthcare workers did not quit back then - they will not quit now.

Now, he's what we call tenacious!

Can you imagine being in the same workplace for 10 years? How about 20? Well, 80-year-old Harbhajan Singh has been a healthcare worker at TTSH for 62 years!

This sibei ups nurse is the longest-serving nurse in the National Healthcare Group where he still works part-time at TTSH. Even more amazing: this shining example of tenacity was part of the frontline forces in other epidemics including the Nipah virus, Ebola and H1N1.

Incidentally, he is featured in the Sikhs in Singapore - A Story Untold exhibition at the Indian Heritage Centre, which runs till Sept 30, and shows him as a "SARS Warrior". It also outlines his nursing journey since 1959 and his commendable work with TTSH following his posting to the hospital in 1965.

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.