A network of previous military regulars and National Servicemen among hospital staff formed the vanguard of the SGH external operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When SGH CEO first called me that fateful Saturday morning in April 2020, he mentioned that the national Joint Task Force (Assurance) was looking for people with a military background.”
And that was how Dr Lionel Cheng, Senior Consultant, Diagnostic Radiology, became one of the two “Points of Contact” for SingHealth with the JTF(A). The JTF(A) was an inter-agency group set up in early April 2020 to manage the rapidly escalating COVID-19 situation in migrant worker dormitories. His last appointment in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) was Commander of the Military Medicine Institute (MMI). Prior to that, he was Deputy Chief Army Medical Officer.
Dr Cheng went on to plan and coordinate SingHealth and SGH Campus external operations, which sent healthcare teams into the migrant workers’ dormitories, to perform swabs, provide medical care and draw blood for serology tests for the workers.
“The first person I called was Hee Nee. I had worked with him before in Army Medical Services and knew he had solid operational experience and was unflappable in the face of chaos. I told him that this was a national crisis and ‘your country needs you’. Hee Nee dove straight into the chaos, going on the ground at multiple sites and making sure the initial waves of team deployments into the dorms went well,” said Dr Cheng.
Dr Pang Hee Nee, Senior Consultant, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, would go on to play a crucial role in managing the S11 dormitory, ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in the dormitories. He was assisted by Dr Puah Ken Lee, another of our Orthopaedic doctors who also held key appointments in the Army Mobile Surgical Teams as a National Service (NS) man. These ex-military clinicians formed a formidable vanguard for the unprecedented mobilisation of healthcare workers for deployment outside the hospital.
Another SGH staff mobilised for the JTF(A) was Dr Gan Wee Hoe, Head and Senior Consultant, Department of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
“I led the MOH Policy and Liaison Team at the JTF(A). The COVID-19 situation in the migrant worker dormitories was the ‘burning platform’ at that time and we needed to contain it expeditiously. Otherwise, the potential spill over into the community and the public health ramifications in Singapore would be dire.
“To put in context, JTF(A) would have to operationalise this mission for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers spread over thousands of accommodations, big and small across Singapore. It was extremely challenging because there was no policy or operational template to follow.
“When the JTF(A) was first established, over three-quarters of its strength was staffed by SAF personnel. My SAF background could be a reason why I was asked to take up the role,” reflected Dr Gan, who was previously Chief Air Force Medical Officer.
Dr Gan Wee Hoe enjoys the balance of being a doctor and an administrator that came with his SAF background.
From the other SingHealth institutions, other ex-SAF medical personnel were similarly mobilised for the external ops. These included Dr Edwin Low from SingHealth Office of Regional Health (ex-Chief Naval Medical Officer), Dr Mohamad Rosman of the Singapore National Eye Centre (ex-Deputy Chief Army Medical Officer), Dr Lim Hou Boon of SNEC (ex-Commander MMI), Dr Koh Choong Hou of the National Heart Centre Singapore (ex-Head Crew Safety and Flight Environment, Air Force Medical Service) and Dr Chow Weien of Changi General Hospital (ex-Chief Naval Medical Officer).
Dr Cheng elaborated, “The ex-military networks extended far beyond SGH and SingHealth. We had ex-colleagues in MOH, and the leads for the external ops from the other clusters were also mostly ex-military personnel. Many of the regulars on the SAF side were also our prior colleagues. This allowed rapid communications to clarify issues, iron out problems and synchronise our efforts. This helped to shortcut official communication channels which were slower. In retrospect, a lot of the back-end communications and efforts were crucial in overcoming many hurdles which emerged along the way. All those prior military networks and communications sprang back to life, supporting our nation in a time of need.”
Dr Gan agreed. “The common operating language and tacit understanding among the current and former SAF personnel in the Task Force greatly facilitated the rapid set up of everything from infrastructure to plans and SOPs. The strong mission focus and our mutual understanding enabled the team to work effectively from day one.”
In addition to these ex-regulars, the many NS men among SGH staff brought their military training and experience to bear, from organising logistics to leading mobile teams to various parts of Singapore.
Nurse Clinician Kenneth Lim was part of the very first mobile swab operation, mounted at Redhill at a day’s notice in April 2020. He went on to lead many more such forays beyond the SGH Campus.
“I served my two-year NS as an army medic, after graduating as a Registered Nurse. As medics, we were trained to work with what we have, most often with just an orderly pouch (first aid kit). This can be likened to the limited resources we had during the start of the external deployment during the pandemic. In addition, the medic is trained to administer first aid in harsh environment like the jungle, or to set IV cannula under moonlight. In terms of physical hardship, wearing PPE and working indoor feel like a walk in the park.
“The experience I had in NS influenced me to choose Emergency Medicine. I enjoy the thrill and adrenaline rush when emergency cases arrive in the medical centre, and the team dynamics during resuscitation.”
NC Kenneth Lim’s mobile teams set the pace and benchmark from the very first mass swabbing operation of the pandemic.
To the un-initiated among us, one tangible clue of the military connection was the influx of military jargon into our work during the pandemic, especially for the external operations. Terms like “ops orders”, “tasking orders”, “in-pro” (in-processing) and “out-pro” (out processing) became part of daily conversations. During those chaotic but heady months in 2020, we became Band of Brothers and Sisters as we fought together in the trenches, for the nation.
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