WE BEAT SARS

It was a battle no one saw coming. Silently, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crept onto our shores in March 2003. Public officers and frontline medical personnel swung into action to contain the outbreak. Ms Siva Sevakame was at the heart of the battle, Ward 5A of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), where the first SARS patient was admitted. Shortly after, Ms Sevakame contracted the virus. Hers is one of the many stories of how we fought and won Singapore’s Silent War.

Ms Siva Sevakame

Ms Siva Sevakame

I had no idea I’d become a nurse. I saw an advertisement for nursing scholarships in 1998 and applied, and was the oldest candidate in the course. I passed it and joined TTSH in 2000. I guess this is why I see nursing as a calling. I didn’t plan for it, but I ended up doing this job.

SARS happened so quickly. I’d just returned to work from my annual leave. I stepped into 5A and was surprised to learn that more than two colleagues had taken sick leave. It was the first time so many nurses were absent! Those present were focused on one patient – we didn’t know that SARS was already among us. That was in March 2003.

When the patient’s condition worsened, she was sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Within a week, she was diagnosed as the first SARS patient in Singapore.

Things changed overnight. We began donning the full set of personal protective equipment, stopped visitations, monitored our temperature daily and transferred all of 5A’s patients to other wards.

One morning, I found myself running a fever. I didn’t think much about it at first. I went to work as usual. I was still my jolly self, cracking jokes and laughing away.

But soon after, I began having terrible body aches and my fever spiked. The pain wasn’t easy to bear. I knew what I had to do: I turned myself in for a check-up. I was suspected of SARS and was quarantined in the hospital. I lay in bed, feeling chills during the day and shivering at night.

It was when I was isolated that my mood took a turn for the worse. My family wasn’t allowed to visit me as a protective measure for them. I grew depressed. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Several colleagues who’d also been stricken with SARS underwent oxygen therapy. What would we need next, I wondered.

For once, I was the patient. There were many rounds of blood taking, for testing. I grew so frustrated with all the needles that I shouted at the doctors when they took my blood. I was in a daze. For the most part, it was the loneliness that scared me.

SARS was my near-death experience. After a week at TTSH, I was warded at the Communicable Disease Centre for two weeks, then discharged and quarantined at home for a month. The checks during this time were very strict. There were follow-ups with doctors, and the police also visited me daily, making sure my family members and I didn’t leave the house. In total, my SARS ordeal lasted six months.

One of the most trying parts about SARS was that people found it hard to understand what the crisis was about. But there were also funny moments. Somehow, people on the MRT trains had very sharp senses and they knew we were from TTSH, even though we didn’t wear our uniforms outside the hospital. When the train stopped at Novena MRT Station and the doors opened, the passengers cleared their seats in a snap to avoid us. We enjoyed a good laugh whenever this happened.

During SARS, I also witnessed the best of Singaporeans. The Government worked hard to educate the public. By the end of March, the message was clear: SARS was no longer a battle involving one person, or medical professionals only – it was a battle we all had to fight, together. Once the public knew how challenging SARS was, it rallied. People sent food, drinks, bouquets and notes of encouragement to TTSH. These poured in from schools, companies; everywhere. Though the first few weeks were hard for everyone, people from all walks of life eventually reached out to us.

My patients have also changed me for the better. Sometimes, when I come to work feeling down, they’ll ask, “How are you, Siva?” and encourage me to smile. They care even though they are suffering themselves. The gratitude they have for us healthcare workers is deep. It comes from the bottom of their hearts and you can tell from their smiles, their tears.

I’m also grateful for the care and encouragement I received from my colleagues and supervisors. They all played a part in giving me a new life. After I recovered, I made a promise to myself: every day, I want to do good to others.

My colleague, Sister Hamidah Ismail, passed away from SARS. When I returned to work, she was still fighting for her life in the ICU. I remember her fondly. She was very capable – a newly promoted nursing officer. She loved sharing stories with us. She passed away on Mother’s Day. That was a big blow to us nurses.

SARS changed my life: I learned to let go, stopped being selfish and started valuing things in a different way. Each moment is precious and I’ve learned to appreciate the present. What truly matters is that we lead meaningful lives, for ourselves and for others.

ON THE FRONTLINES
After receiving news on the SARS outbreak in March 2003, Ms Chor Swee Suet, 60, swung into action. As Head, Nursing, and Deputy Director of Nursing & Clinical Standards at the Health Promotion Board (HPB), she oversaw a team of seasoned nurses and dental therapists who were mobilised islandwide to conduct temperature screenings, serve Quarantine Orders to contacts of SARS patients at their homes and conduct telephone calls to them three times a day.

“Our nurses worked really hard in two shifts with long hours to contain the spread of the virus,” she says. “I recall an incident where one of my nurses came back visibly shaken as she was pushed out of a house while trying to serve a Quarantine Order. Tensions were high and it wasn’t easy for our nurses. She cried when she shared this with me, and I cried with her. But we knew we had to carry on; we had to do our jobs.

”After three SARS cases were detected at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market, over 100 HPB nurses were deployed to serve Quarantine Orders and advise on personal hygiene and temperature monitoring. “But even that wasn’t enough,” says Ms Chor. “We also had to send our dental therapists so that we could quickly serve the Quarantine Orders to mitigate the spread of SARS.”

Ms Chor also put herself on the weekend temperature screening roster at the HarbourFront Cruise and Ferry Terminal. “I had to be there,” she says, “not only to support our nurses, but to understand the ground situation better.”

Having been a nurse for over 40 years, Ms Chor’s passion for her work remains as strong as ever. “We’re always on the frontlines of taking care of people. So when it comes to public service, I cant think of a better job to be in than nursing.