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Into the heat of Battle – Volunteers in the Dormitories

When we watch movies or play a game, it’s always enthralling seeing a huge challenge (usually an antagonist, an evil villain) being met with a hero up to the task. But what happens when a real-life villain named ‘COVID-19’ appears? We speak to real life heroes who bravely charge into the frontline to save lives – proving that not all heroes wear capes.​

The Protector – Dr Huren Sivarajvaraj
“That’s fine Doctor. I’m just grateful that your team is coming to see us every day to make sure we’re alright. That’s enough for us now.” – A patient in the dormitory said to Dr Huren.

By day, Dr Huren Sivaraj is an Associate Consultant with the Division of Medical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore, subspecialising in breast cancer. His research interests centre on the application of data science and informatics in Oncology – more specifically, the application of data science and AI (Artificial Intelligence) in helping to identify suitable clinical trials for patients.

Where are you currently posted?
I’m currently serving at the S11 Dormitory. I also did a short stint at the Homestay Lodge at the start of my volunteer rotation.

What do you do at the dormitory?
I’m a member of the Mobile Medical Team (MMT). Together with two other physicians and an amazing team of nurses, allied health workers and administrative personnel, we run a clinic to review COVID-19 patients and dorm residents for any medical conditions they may have. We ensure the patients receive a proper assessment of any ailments they may be experiencing and diagnose and treat these symptoms.
The team also functions as the first line of medical support on the ground. We identify individuals who may not be well and escalate the level of medical care to the hospitals if required.


   In the heat of battle: Dr Huren in action in the dormitory

Why did you step forward and volunteer?
Supporting our country and our people is a collective effort where we as medical personnel have an important role to play in this crisis. I’m only doing my bit – just as what every other healthcare personnel is doing – be it in the community facilities, dorms, hospitals or elsewhere.

“As I communicated with some of these workers, what struck me most was how remarkable these workers were for having such strength and fortitude in the face of uncertainty”- Dr Huren

What is it like to be in the frontlines in the dormitories? Were there any memorable moments?
It was a back-to-reality experience for me. Caring for the dorm residents is eye-opening in that many of them are just regular people, like us – as clichéd or obvious as that sounds. Their psychological and emotional needs are the same as ours.

I recall a short conversation where I was reviewing a COVID-19 positive gentleman. I was familiar with this person after prior consults to address his concerns about his diabetes medication. I asked him, “Well, now that we’ve sorted out your medications, is there anything else I can help with?”

I half-jokingly asked if he wanted to know when we could transfer him out of the isolation facility. The gentleman replied in Tamil, “That’s fine Doctor. I don’t think you or anyone else knows the answer to that. I’m just grateful that your team is coming to see us every day to make sure we are alright. That’s enough for us now.”

As I communicated with some of them, what struck me most was how remarkable they were for having such strength and fortitude in the face of uncertainty. Many of these individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 during the earlier period, and there was not much clarity about the virus. Despite this uncertainty, they were able to find the determination to stay positive and care for themselves.


Dr Huren attends to a patient in the dormitory

What have you gained from this experience?
It was humbling to see many of the senior physicians in this institution, who are renowned leaders in their respective subspecialties, support the country with essential medical services that are now the need of the hour. The experience of being in the dorms with these individuals has taught me that no work is too small. Every little bit of support the medical personnel offers will contribute to our fight against COVID-19.

For me, I’m grateful for the opportunity to play a small part in this journey to recovery.


Dr Huren (3rd from left) with the Mobile Medical Team

​A fantasy game usually involves solving a problem, a little adventuring and maybe a little luck. But a constant theme throughout such a game is that there’s usually isn’t just one solitary hero. Rather, there’s usually a diverse group from all races and various backgrounds, all wanting to help, all with their own special skills and talents. Likewise, healthcare isn’t all about doctors and nurses. Allied health, management and administration professionals all play a big part too.

The Potions Master – Mr Peter Yap

Peter is the Pharmacy Practice Manager at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS). He is usually found at the Level 3 Oncology Pharmacy where he is responsible for compounding sterile chemotherapy drugs to be administered to patients at the Ambulatory Treatment Unit (ATU) which is located on the same floor. He also reviews each patient’s medication to provide counselling about their treatment.

Aside from his duties, Peter is also currently involved in helping to plan pharmacy facilities in the new NCCS building. 

Outside of work, Peter is an avid reader and can often be found clutching a book during his free time. He also enjoys jogging which helps him to de-stress. He lives by the axiom “Dum Spiro, Spero” (While I breathe, I hope) and tries to live each day to its fullest.

It was this positive attitude that led Peter to respond to the call for volunteers to be part of the mobile medical teams attending to migrant workers living in the dormitories.

“I have enjoyed working with the various teams. My teammates are so willing to give all of their skills and time. No task is too small for them.” - Peter

Where are you currently posted to?
I was first posted to the dormitory in Penjuru (g Penjuru 2 or JP2 for short) and after a month, I was transferred to the Swab Isolation Facility (SIF) at Concorde Hotel. However, I’ve been posted back to JP2 where I continue to provide pharmacy services to the workers who live in the dormitory.


                           Into the heat of battle: In full personal protective equipment (PPE), Peter

counsels a patient while dispensing medication.

What do you do in the dormitory?
I provide pharmacy services, mainly dispensing medication to the workers who come to the mobile clinic set up within the dormitory. The medication is used to treat symptoms of acute respiratory illness (ARI), as well as ailments like diarrhoea, constipation, aches and pain and rashes.

The clinic now handles workers with chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some of the residents needed to obtain refills of their medication during their quarantine. As the pharmacist on site, I review their medication and assist in managing their condition, either through refills of their medication for chronic ailments, and/or to ensure that their conditions are being monitored.

Why did you step forward to volunteer?
There is a Latin phrase “si s i” (if not me then who) which was one of the main reasons that I decided to step forward to help in whatever way that I could. Thankfully, my training and skills as a pharmacist were needed and I had the opportunity to set up the pharmacy at both JP2 as well as the SIF facility at Concorde Hotel.

Seventeen years ago, I was also able to do my bit during the SARS outbreak and found that it was such an enriching experience. This time round has been equally enriching, and I have enjoyed being a member of the different teams. At both posting locations, I found my teammates to be so willing to give all of their skills and time. No task is too small for them. The people who we serve, namely the migrant workers, have been very warm and receptive to the services which we have been able to provide for them.

“I have realised how difficult it must be to be far away from your loved ones, to be able to communicate only virtually.”- Peter

Peter carefully prepares medication for patients. Some of the residents needed

to obtain refills of their medication for chronic conditions during their quarantine

How is the experience like? Were there any particularly memorable incidents?
This experience has been humbling. Prior to this, I had never been to any of the migrant workers’ dormitories and like most Singaporeans, all I understood about the dormitories was from media reports.

Many of the workers are overwhelmed by what is going on around them. Nonetheless they understand and realise the severity of the situation, and do all they can to abide by the law. Most of them are more concerned about their families and friends, than they are about themselves.

One particular example that struck me was a Bangladeshi worker who I met a few times. He had ARI symptoms but he was more concerned about making sure that his salary would be credited so that he would be able to remit the money back home to Bangladesh. This is because his family and both sets of grandparents all rely on the money he sends home for their day-to-day needs. Despite our assurances, he was also concerned that he would be sent home if he tested positive for COVID-19. It was relief all round when we told him that he tested negative for the virus.

“Every little bit that we do for each other, can and will make a difference to all of us” – Peter

Did you feel you gained or learned something from this experience?
While this pandemic is creating a new way of life for all of us, it has shown me how lucky I am. It is so difficult to be far away from your loved ones and only be able to communicate virtually.

I have also learnt that every little bit we do matters and we should to be grateful for the little things in life. In the end, family, friends, and good health are what matters most. Like many Singaporeans, I have not had much deep interaction with the people who clear my trash, build my home, clean the streets and cut the grass but I am really thankful for their presence here. From my experiences with the migrant workers in the dormitories, I know that they truly appreciate what we are doing for them in return.

The people I have had the pleasure to work with have shown me what it means to care. It may sound like a cliché, but every little bit that we do for each other, can and will make a difference to all of us.