It is not every day that an author of stories finds themselves the subject of a story.
When she was a part of Changi General Hospital's Corporate Affairs department, Ms Ai Ling Sim-Devadas used to pitch stories to the media, write healthcare articles, and interview patients about their experiences.
Today, Ai Ling is a breast cancer survivor who acts as a champion for all patients.
Ms Ai Ling Sim-Devadas, treated for breast cancer at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, is a champion for all patients.
In November 2017, Ai Ling, then a healthcare communications consultant, felt that something wasn’t quite right. She had a series of medical tests that confirmed that she had a tumour in her right breast and Stage 2 breast cancer which had spread to her lymph nodes.
"Overnight, I went from being a confident healthcare navigator for the family to becoming a fearful and worried cancer patient," shared Ai Ling.
Ai Ling underwent a mastectomy in November 2017 at Changi General Hospital and chemotherapy treatment at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) in the first half of 2018 under the care of Dr Elaine Lim, Senior Consultant in NCCS' Division of Medical Oncology.
"She was my rock," said Ai Ling. "Whenever I was anxious or had a question, she was there for me. Dr Lim was instrumental in helping me manage my cancer journey."
Ai Ling with her oncologist and “rock” Dr Elaine Lim, Senior Consultant at the National Cancer Centre Singapore
Ai Ling also shared that her husband, teenage son and extended family were by her side throughout it all. "Thankfully, I have a very supportive family, and they helped tremendously in my recovery."
During this time, she was struck by the challenges a patient faces and how the hospital experience often did not meet a patient's needs.
"A garden in the middle of a hospital seemed like a great idea to me when I was working in hospital administration but didn't seem so when I became a patient looking for a place to work through my emotions about my diagnosis," recounted Ai Ling. "I needed a place to cry, but the hospital garden was a poor choice as it was next to a busy thoroughfare."
Ai Ling had worked in healthcare throughout her career, but this was the first time she experienced the differences in perspective between a patient and a healthcare professional.
She was also looking for meaning and purpose in her experience as a patient.
In March 2018, she was approached to join the SingHealth Patient Advocacy Network (SPAN), a network of patients and caregivers set up to represent the collective voice of patients by the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute for Patient Safety & Quality in 2017. Her experiences as a healthcare professional and a patient made her a perfect fit. Ai Ling immediately said yes and by October that same year was appointed co-chair of SPAN.
As co-chair of SPAN, Ai Ling rallies patient advocates and harnesses their insights on what matters to patients and their families to help healthcare teams in SingHealth improve the healthcare experience of patients and caregivers. Since its inception, SPAN has undertaken over 30 different projects to improve the patient experience in the healthcare setting, such as the Patient Experience Talks or PEx Talks, where patients share their stories with healthcare professionals. SPAN is also involved in national, cluster and institutional level projects on quality improvement, process design, patient experience and facility design.
Panel Discussion at a PeX Talk on Compassionate Care for healthcare professionals at Singapore General Hospital in 2019.
In addition to her work in SPAN, Ai Ling is a key volunteer for Ambulance Wish Singapore, an organisation that fulfils the wishes of those in the final days of their life. When asked to share a memorable encounter, Ai Ling recounts the touching story of Mr Goh, who was ill with end-stage pancreatic cancer. Mr Goh wanted to be able to walk his daughter down the aisle when she got married. Ambulance Wish Singapore made it possible by organising his transport, with medical support, to the ceremony so that Mr Goh got his wish. He passed on two days after his daughter's wedding.
"Being able to grant a wish like that is extremely powerful," recalled Ai Ling. "On that day, many tears were shed by the family. All of us in the team were very moved. We don't just fulfil dreams but create situations where healing is possible in the final days of a patient's life."
In 2020, Ai Ling was appointed to The Beryl Institute's Global Patient and Family Advisory Board. The Beryl Institute is establishing a global community of practice to improve the patient experience. In the same year, Ai Ling received the Partner-In-Care Award (Patient Category) at the Singapore Health Inspirational Patient & Caregiver Awards 2020, the highest honour for award winners who have demonstrated exemplary, active partnership to improve care quality and experience.
Ai Ling receiving the Partner-In-Care Award (Patient Category) for the Singapore Health Inspirational Patient & Caregiver Awards 2020 from Changi General Hospital’s CEO, Professor Ng Wai Hoe.
"While no one wants to get cancer, I am glad to chart a meaningful path because of my personal journey," said Ai Ling, as she reflected on her work to improve the patient experience.
These days, Ai Ling has regular check-ups to monitor her health and is feeling good. Her work and inspiring story are far from over.
Volunteers and donations help support patients at NCCS. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to volunteer or email email@example.com to help raise funds as a third party fundraiser for the NCCS Cancer Fund. Any donation for the NCCS Cancer Fund supports patient care, cancer research, cancer education and areas of greatest need. To give, visit https://www.giving.sg/web/nccs-cancer-fund.
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