Helping out people is more of a life mission than a job for medical social worker Peter Lee, who was honoured alongside a colleague for their remarkable devotion at a ceremony on Friday (May 10).

Mr Lee, 79, assisted many needy patients with tuberculosis, mental illnesses, leprosy and other ailments over the years and remains active in the field.

While he no longer sees patients directly, he serves as master medical social worker at SGH and mentors younger medical social workers. He is also a member of the National Transplant Ethics Committee and is chairman of the National Skin Centre's Medifund Committee.

Mr Lee was one of two veteran medical social workers who received appreciation awards for their contributions at an event at Singapore General Hospital to mark the 70th anniversary of medical social service here.

He recalled paying visits to squatters living in makeshift houses or overcrowded shophouses in the late 1960s when he started his career in social work at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

"In those early years, there was a lot of poverty," he said.

"Many patients had low income and could not afford even basic treatment. When they recovered and were discharged, many wanted to stay because they were getting proper food and were more comfortable in the hospital."

The other award winner was Mrs Saro Palakrishanan, 76.

Mrs Palakrishnan said one of her most challenging periods was during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003: "It was a new and scary disease."

"We had to work together and counsel not only patients and their relatives but also our own nurses after some of our colleagues passed away from Sars."

She now serves as a community care consultant at the National Kidney Foundation and is a member of the Pioneer Generation and Merdeka Generation Appeals Panel.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who attended the event alongside Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong and about 200 medical social workers, told the gathering: "Medical social workers provide the human touch to help Singaporeans who need hospital care but are not able to afford it.

"For many of you, this is not just a job. It is a calling, it is a passion."