<<Mr Senwan Jamal prepares tissue samples for diagnosis in the lab. Preparation takes several steps that include fixing, staining, cutting, and sectioning.>>

Major industrial accident. Hotel collapse. Virus epidemic. Singapore General Hospital (SGH) Senior Medical Laboratory Technologist, Mr Senwan Jamal, has pretty much seen it all. So, as far as he is concerned, working amid the recent COVID-19 pandemic was business as usual.

The 67-year-old works in SGH’s Department of Anatomical Pathology, Division of Pathology, preparing human tissue samples for testing and analysis by pathologists. Much of his working life has been uneventful, but major incidents like the 1978 Greek tanker Spyros explosion and the Hotel New World collapse in 1986 have left an indelible mark on him.

In those early days, forensics came under the pathology department’s responsibilities. The lab staff worked hand in hand with the pathologists. As pathologists performed post-mortems, the lab staff stood by and recorded their findings. When the Spyros explosion occurred, they had to identify bodies, diagnose the cause of death, and release the information to the families, Mr Senwan said.

“We were called back to work — the men to the mortuary; the ladies back in the lab. Because of the scale of the disaster, there was not enough space in the mortuary. You could see bodies lying on the floor, and all the freezers were full. Families surrounded the mortuary, waiting for their loved ones. Some of them were crying. We worked non-stop for two to three days, even eating our meals at the mortuary,” he added.

It was no different with the Hotel New World collapse. “The bodies came in, one by one, one hour, three hours, the next day,” he said, adding that the team had to improvise by renting container freezers to hold the bodies.

“Even the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic was quite okay for us. We kept to our standard operating procedures (SOPs), wore N95 masks, goggles, gloves, T-shirts, and track pants. I don’t think we were extremely worried about getting the disease,” he said.

Lifelong passion

It almost seems like fate that Mr Senwan should work in SGH. He passed the hospital daily in his teens, and often flirted with the thought that he might some day work at the hospital. When he left school, Singapore had just separated from Malaysia to become a sovereign state.

“I saw an advertisement about this job. This was my first choice because I’ve always loved biology and health science,” said Mr Senwan, who has been in his job for over 50 years.

When he received the SGH 50 Years Long Service Award in 2019, he said his children were very proud of him, even though they had not realised he had worked at SGH for so long. “When I went on to the stage to receive the award, it was a proud moment for my family and me,” he added.

From infectious diseases to national tragedies, Mr Senwan took the many challenges that came his way in his stride. However, it is regular testing work that gives him the most satisfaction.

“Different patients have different tissue. You have to think about how to handle it, especially problematic tissue that is very tiny, for example. You must take pride and do the testing work properly,” he said.

Although he is already at retirement age, Mr Senwan believes in lifelong learning. “SOPs change, and even at my age, I keep abreast of the changes, such as the use of computers and information systems.”

“Healthcare is dynamic. You can learn a lot and help patients recover better. It is very meaningful,” said Mr Senwan.