Doctors on the COVID-19 Frontlines: “We’re Human Too.”
There is a lot to love about being a doctor: I get to help and interact with people on a daily basis, improve the quality of life for my patients, and innovate medical technology. Being a part of the Speedoc team has also given me more opportunities to improve healthcare accessibility in Singapore and bring me into the homes of wonderful patients who remind me about why I enjoy doing this job.
Yet, the reality of being a doctor is that we are also on the frontlines whenever a disease or virus outbreak happens. As medical director of Speedoc, I’m quite insulated from the frontlines of the disease. The reality is that many of my fellow doctors do not share this privilege with me.
Even not as a doctor on the frontlines, here’s the reality; there is a very real risk of catching the virus, especially because some patients are asymptomatic. Every parent who needs to work a full time job will dread even the notion that they, through some stroke of bad luck, will bring the virus home with them. I can hardly fathom how I would feel if I were to be quarantined and not be able to play with or hug my 7-year old for 14 days at the risk of exposing him to the virus. That fear is much more real for every Speedoc doctor fighting on the frontlines. Much as that fear might incentivize doctors to simply hide away from the frontlines, that simply is not happening both in Singapore and across the world.
So, why do we do it? Why take the risk and fight against an unknown virus at such great personal expense?
For me, it’s simple. I love this country and I love the people in it. Being a PR for many years, I’ve come to regard Singapore as my home and its citizens as my countrymen. I daresay it’s the same for many of my fellow doctors and nurses who have put their lives on hold to fight the outbreak. These heroes have volunteered their time to be on the frontlines at NCID, working long shifts at the screening centre or looking after patients. Some of them have chosen to practice self-imposed social distancing from their loved ones, limiting physical contact and staying in their own rooms.
Some doctors are veterans from 2003 when we were fighting the SARS epidemic in Singapore. Back then, hospitals were less prepared to deal with the outbreak and containment strategies were not as swiftly implemented, resulting in the deaths of some of our own healthcare workers, including vascular surgeon Dr Alexandre Chao. Thankfully, that tragic loss to both him and his family did not go to waste in combating the deadly disease, as the WHO declared Singapore SARS free on May 30, 2003.
Thankfully, the COVID-19 situation in Singapore looks to be under control, with fewer cases being reported and more patients being discharged. I can hardly imagine what it is like to be a healthcare worker on the frontlines in China, where the virus originated and has already infected close to 80,000 people. Healthcare workers are overwhelmed and trying to save as much time as possible so they can attend to more patients, including shaving their heads and wearing adult diapers.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of protective equipment in the country, over 3,000 of them have already contracted the virus. Some have even died, including prominent frontline doctors like Li Wenliang, and Liu Zhiming, the director of a leading hospital in Wuhan.
Most COVID-19 cases are mild and many patients will go on to make a full recovery. But, what happens if it mutates into something more dangerous? How prepared are we for nature’s surprises in more fatal future viral epidemics? These harsh realities of the war against this virus might give even the most experienced doctor pause. So how are doctors finding strength in this trying time?
To answer that, I think back to when I became a doctor and I took an oath. Here is one of my favourite lines from it:
“To cure sometimes, to relieve often and to comfort always.”
This line reminds me of the importance of the work I do. I don’t just look after sick patients, my job also makes me a crucial part of keeping society peaceful, safe and happy. It is this sense of duty to society and its people that doctors are willing to be front and centre even with the regular challenges posed by the widely publicised cases like H1N1, MERS-CoV,SARS , Ebola- the list goes on. I believe Singaporean society can take solace in knowing that there are thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare workers like me who stand steadfast in combating this disease to the best of our own ability, supported by one of the most robust healthcare systems in the world.
That is exactly why I was initially disheartened to read news articles about how nurses and other healthcare workers in Singapore were being shunned away by the general public, instead of lauded for the work we were doing to help contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country. From nurses being chased off trains to ambulance drivers not being able to get a meal, fear had allowed some Singaporeans to show an ugly side to our healthcare heroes.
Do I understand where the fear comes from? Yes, of course. But I also implore everyone to have more trust in our healthcare staff. We get into this line of work to protect people, so the level of care that is being taken to ensure people are protected during these uncertain times is next to nothing. The level of precaution has been stepped up, including:
Furthermore, us doctors can take all the precautions we want, but it is you, the common citizen, that has the greatest role to play in preventing the spread of the virus. In my opinion, every citizen that takes the appropriate preventative measures plays just as big of a role as any doctor or medical personnel in curbing the spreading of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
So, instead of responding to our healthcare heroes with fear or trepidation, instead, respond with the love that they deserve. We’re human too. I am thankful to all the Singaporeans who have shown them kindness in recent weeks and I’m hoping that more people will do so as we continue the good fight against COVID-19.
This post was written by Dr Fahir Khiard, Medical Director of Speedoc.