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Everyday Singaporeans share the realities of what it takes, to give for a living

Everyday Singaporeans share the realities of what it takes, to give for a living

Compassion as a career

Text: Brandon Alexius Chia

Editor: Rahat Kapur


Image: Unsplash

Hard truth incoming: Humans are self-involved. We hate to admit it but it's true. We go about our day thinking of what we need to accomplish and chasing what in our own heart's desires. Who can blame us? We do after all, live in a rat race society where we were taught to think about "me, myself, and I", faster than we learned fractions. But in this bid to get ahead, it's easy to forget sometimes that everyone goes through their own trials and tribulations, including those in professions that involve nurturing as a fundamental element of their day-to-day scope.

Flashback for a moment. Sure, thanking our teachers after every class during our schooling days was standard practice, but did we really mean it? When we've ended up in the emergency room in the dead of night and on the brink of collapse, how have we or our loved ones treated the nurses at registration? Over the past year, the world has seen many devastating events of violence and discrimination and in Singapore and we in Singapore, have been lucky to have escaped the brunt of most of these. But if there's one thing we've all come to realise regardless of where we live, it's that the world could use more empathy and gratitude.

And as our final feature story for June, celebrating 'Compassion', we couldn't think of a better way to close than shining a light on those who embody the kindness it takes to care for a living. Below are five everyday Singaporeans, giving back to their communities in extraordinary ways and they share with us not only what compassion means to them, but the daily realities of what it takes, to give.

"Compassion is perseverance" – Cheryl Ng, Social Worker

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"People think that we can solve all their issues. For example, statements such as: 'if you have no money, go find a social worker' are very common in our line of work. But that's not true," says Cheryl Ng, jovially. Handling an average of 60 to 80 patients a month, her duties involve everything from risk assessment to planning post-hospitalisation care to domestic, safety and financial counselling, all whilst working closely with doctors and therapists to ensure the wellbeing of patients.

Despite having everyone's best interests at heart, Cheryl has encountered her fair share of stubborn clients who refuse to listen to her perspectives during counselling. However, she understands that her work requires patience in order to make a difference in their lives. "A big part of what we do is listening. Without it, we lose that important 'human touch' with our clients. We want them to know that there is someone who is here for them, understand what they are going through, and process information with them," she shares.

And emotionally draining it is, to continue finding the motivation to be a social worker. But inspite of the challenges, Cheryl perseveres, wanting to give her best every day, driven by every positive change witnesses in her clients. "In one of my previous cases, I had a child that did not want to interact with me. Even though I spent a lot of time trying to build a rapport with him, he remained defensive. But after two years of therapy, there was a breakthrough and he finally wanted to engage – this is what keeps me coming into work."

"Compassion is selflessness" – Kajal Singh, PE Teacher

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Even after six classes a day and over a hundred children under her wing, Kajal Singh's students always come first. "If I let them sit out, it's like losing a battle and I take that personally because it means I robbed them of an opportunity to learn something," Singh puts on her best booming voice. While kids commonly view physical education as an escape from the stress of school, she has a differing opinion. For her, games and sport teach values that can't be taught in a theory setting and she's not afraid to say it.

"PE is more than just about being the best sprinter or whatever – it's about being respectful to your classmates and developing resilience and integrity. This is where people experience character development, because you're not just focusing on yourself but interacting with your friends," she explains. When a number of her students choose to sit on the side lines during her lessons due to medical reasons, Singh empathises with them until it becomes a recurring issue. If not medical or psychologically based, she knows their excuses might be avoidant. So she either nudges them to do less strenuous activities or talks to them one-on-one to find out why they're not participating.

"To me, building that teacher-student relationship is crucial so that I can understand what their needs are and try to fit that into the curriculum. I can teach them theory all day but what's the point? What do they take away from it?" she shares.

"Compassion is understanding" – Nicole Chong, Embalmer and Funeral Director

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"Compassion can really change a person's life. Sometimes, the things we do for others might seem small but to them, it can mean a lot," says Chong — an embalmer and a funeral director of Serenity Casket and Funerals. Although her work can be gruesome for others, Chong has grown accustomed to preparing the dead for their final farewell, having been exposed to the trade since her teenage years and through visiting her family's business.

She's quick to correct the myths and seemingly morbid tales about what her daily work actually involves. "A lot of people think that we take out all the organs, but that's not true." Instead, her work involves prepping the body to be drained of any fluids through small incisions and then, applying hair and makeup – sometimes strangely so at the request of living relatives.

"I had a client once, that wanted me to highlight their relative's hair. I also had clients who wanted the person who had passed to have a manicure and pedicure." And whilst it may seem out of context for some, she understands the deeper pain that may be at the crux of such requests. "I would say that they (these clients) are often emotionally unstable at the time of the request, but really, they just want their loved ones to look beautiful – so I try my best to give them what they want."

After six years in the profession, Chong is often on-call at all times, which makes her personal life a little more complicated — especially as a mother. "Just the other day, my daughter and I were about to go out but a case happened right at that time, so I had to go to work instead. I had to tell her to wait for me to come home and thankfully, she understood," says Chong.

"Compassion is exhausting" – Haoting Chow, Veterinarian

"A common issue with our profession, and even in human medicine, is compassion fatigue. Stress in life is acceptable in small doses. But when there is too much of it and you don't have time to unwind, that is when your brain and heart just can't take it anymore," explains SPCA vet, Dr Haoting Chow. In his personal time, he is also vocal on his social media platforms about mental health and raising awareness on why more resources need to be provided for vets in Singapore.

"Animal medicine is not subsidised, so when we do prescribe treatment, it can be costly and at times, owners can vent their frustrations out on us. There are some days that [vets] feel like quarrelling with them, but then again it won't serve the animal any good," he shares. The doctor also reveals that the barrage of negative posts that vets experience online may surprise many and in the end, does take its toll. Many would be surprised to know a dedicated support group was formed on Facebook recently to help such practitioners cope with their anxieties.

"We have industry-related groups for surgeries and dermatology, but the biggest one is actually on suicide prevention. It's called 'Not One More Vet' and the second biggest group is on career transitions – I think that's the best way to describe what the situation can sometimes be like." says Chow.

"Compassion is strength" – Nisha Narah Singh, Nurse

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"It's very heartbreaking to hear or see things such as 'nurses wearing uniforms are dirty' or that we are carrying the virus and shouldn't be allowed on public transport," says Singh, a nurse who has worked in a COVID-exposed ward. Even though harassment involving nurses has been spotlighted in the media recently, she reveals the impact is fallible, with many still being no strangers to rude behaviour even prior to the pandemic.

"I have been spat on, bitten, punched, kicked, had cutlery thrown at my face, and I once had a male patient whom I was showering and he tried to touch me inappropriately. These are the things that make you demoralised," Singh describes.

She stresses the need for nurses to stand their ground, not only to protect themselves but to serve patients to the best of their ability. "Recently, I had a patient that threatened to hit me and my fellow nurses. My first reaction was to reason with him that I was there to nurse him and meet his needs. If he had not co-operated with me, I would have had to get my superiors on board to rectify the issue. There was even a separate occasion where the police had to be involved because the patient went too far."

But even so, she finds that the rewards often outweigh the cons of her profession. Primarily, the joy of seeing her patients recover from their illnesses or fractured bones is all the fuel SIngh needs to drive her as a caretaker, no matter how difficult it can seem.

For more Compassion features, click here.