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Unsung Heroes at the Frontline – Triage

In this series we take a look 'behind the scenes' at the National Cancer Centre Singapore. This issue, we feature unsung and unseen heroes who work hard to keep NCCS running smoothly.

"We are the first line of defence for everyone, making sure NCCS is a safe place for treatment and care."

You may have noticed a major change in the façade of NCCS recently: a huge tent and screening areas. All this was done to help protect patients, visitors and staff from the COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019).

Anyone who comes to NCCS would first encounter our triage screeners. These everyday folks from the non-medical departments have been mobilised to manage the screening of all visitors and staff. These duties ensure that patients can continue to get safe and good care at NCCS. We follow two of the triage screeners, Mr Steven John, a Digital and Mass Fundraising Executive, and Ms Nova Isabelle, an Associate Clinical Research Coordinator to find out more.

"I'd rather do something to help rather than just standing around during a crisis"

At a time when most people would just be waking up and starting their day, Steven, along with 15 other staff members are already at NCCS coordinating operations. A group briefing at 6.30am signals the start of the shift. Updates about the current virus situation, any changes to screening protocol and operational issues are discussed. Daily updates are necessary due to the rapidly changing local and global situation.

At 7.00am, the first few patients and accompanying persons trickle in. Things move briskly, with patients being screened for their temperature, symptoms and travel history. More patients arrive as the hours pass, with the crowd reaching its peak between 9.00am and 10.00am.

For visitors, the protocols mean necessary but minor inconveniences. However in rare cases, some visitors do get impatient and annoyed. "I think some people don't understand why we have these checks. One or two get upset with the situation and can become difficult to handle," explains Steven. Nova agrees and adds that most visitors calm down after things are explained and they understand that the precautions are to keep them and their loved ones safe in view of the COVID-19 situation.

"I'm passionate about protecting them and keeping NCCS safe"

In the flurry of activity, the time moves quickly. When the shift is over, it's back to the office after a lunch break. Despite the disruption to normal work, both Steven and Nova return to their regular jobs. They continue to serve several triage shifts every week. While it isn't easy, they find purpose in supporting the frontlines. "This situation isn't easy for anyone, we all have our fears, but I'd rather do something to help than just stand around during a crisis," says Steven.

"As healthcare workers, we are here to serve and protect our patients, especially those in NCCS who have weak immune systems. I'm passionate about protecting them and keeping NCCS safe," adds Nova.

Visiting NCCS? Here's how you can help us make screening a breeze.

  1. Patient – Please be patient! We dislike delays too and are working quickly to get you screened and on your way.
  2. Understand – Many patients in NCCS have weak immune systems and we want to protect them. That's why our screening procedures are tighter. Please be understanding and cooperate with us.
  3. Stay home – Stay home if you're not well. If you're having upper respiratory symptoms or fever, please see a GP or go to the Emergency Department.
  4. Honesty – Please be honest when filling up the declaration form. False declarations are an offence and you can be prosecuted under the Infectious Disease Act.

Have you met Steven?

What's your regular role in NCCS?

I'm a Digital and Mass Fundraising Executive. My role is to encourage charitable giving toward the charity funds managed by NCCS via online channels. The aim is to reach like-minded individuals and corporations.

Why is your role as a Triage Screener important?

By screening, we protect our patients. We are the first line of defence for everyone, making sure NCCS is a safe place for treatment and care.

What challenges do you face on duty as a Screener?

Visitors who get upset with the additional measures can turn nasty. I empathise with their frustrations, but we hope that visitors realise that we are doing this to protect them and patients.

Sometimes, I stay late to catch up on my work. I'm grateful to my wife and family who are supportive and cheering me on.

What encourages you to keep going?

There are really nice individuals and corporate partners who have been encouraging and supportive. Some sent personal messages and others donated gifts to encourage us.

Have you met Nova?

What's your regular role in NCCS?

I am an Associate Clinical Research Coordinator. I facilitate clinical trials, working with Doctors or Researchers, preparing research and medical documents or even performing simple tests on the patient. I'm actually a certified phlebotomist!

How does your team cope with the demands of additional triage duty?

I'm thankful that we work as a team to cover each other's duties. Being the newbie in the department, I feel bad when senior members of the team have to take on the additional workload. I try to return the favour when I can.

It must be difficult dealing with the situation in Singapore and keeping tabs on your family back home. How do you manage that?

I've never experienced anything like this. This crisis is really teaching me what it means to work in the healthcare industry. I come from Philippines and this is my first job abroad so I'm concerned about my family. We connect via video call at night and on weekends as much as possible.

What encourages you to keep going?

The outpouring of support from the community has been wonderful. Sometimes we get small surprises like drinks or sweets from patients. Once, there was an uncle who dropped off some curry puffs for us as encouragement.  But really, a simple smile or 'thank you' is enough to make our day!