Phase III Medicine student Gabriel Wong led his peers from various faculties of the National University of Singapore (NUS) to interview 20 seniors from nursing homes and activity centres, and put together a book detailing their life stories and experiences with the healthcare system. 

 

It has been two years since we embarked on this project to promote inter-professional learning and inter-generational bonding. It has been an honour to have been able to shape the project from its initial stages to its fruition. The idea was borne out of a few simple questions: Given an ageing population, how can we improve care from a person-centric point-of-view? How do we encourage a humanistic view of patient care? Can we realise the objectives of inter-professional education to achieve a truly inter-disciplinary, cross-faculty project?

 

We are deeply grateful for the support of our academic advisors, especially Assistant Professor Calvin Ho from NUS Medicine’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Associate Professor Chow Yeow Leng from the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies, for their advice throughout the entire writing process, and our literary advisor Ms Eleanor Yap, for shepharding what were basically a bunch of clueless students through the interviewing, writing and publishing process. I am confident that we have sowed the seeds of something truly revolutionary: the idea of an intermingling of the medical and humanistic disciplines through a writing project. The people who came on board have truly exceeded my expectations: the Yale-NUS College students as reviewers, the NUS School of Design and Environment students who designed the cover page and book, the Engineering and Medicine students who helped to plan the launch. We have been touched by their generosity and fervent support.

This book is a confluence of many influences: the healthcare policy angle, the literary angle (we got the seniors to share interesting life stories about themselves) and an artistic angle (our writers took photographs of the seniors and they also got the seniors to snap pictures of items that they hold dear, empowering them to tell their own stories).

 

Throughout the entire process, we were constantly amazed by the vivid experiences, tenacity of spirit, generosity and effervescence of our interviewees. Every writer faced challenges interacting with these seniors: some struggled with the generation gap, others were a tad reserved and suspicious. However, all rose to the challenge to tell compelling stories and share about their healthcare challenges.

 

This process, while exhilarating, also exposed many shortcomings.

 

The multiple revisions – errors in grammar, content, style – which our reviewers and academic advisors were so kind enough to point out, and which we were still fervidly amending till the days before the book was released; the difficulties in coordinating across faculties that did not have prior experience collaborating together; the lack of foresight, struggles in getting buy-in from schools and partners, who struggled to distinguish our outreach efforts from the many other healthcare outreach projects.

 

We also faced budget constraints, last minute edits, and reprints, and the inevitable recriminations that these issues exposed. There were times I wondered, and perhaps the key committee members too, whether the idea was just a beautiful dream that was hard to realise. We lacked the benefit of precedence, and everyone had a slightly different idea of what the project entailed – the difficulty of trying to bring everything together made the effort akin to sewing a tapestry fraying at the seams.

At the book launch on 2 June 2018 at Canopy @ JLink in Jurong East: Gabriel Wong (centre) and team, advisors from various NUS faculties, Member of Parliament Denise Phua (3rd from left) and Group Chief Executive Officer of National Healthcare Group Professor Philip Choo (2nd from right, back row).

I do not claim particular intelligence, foresight, tenacity or wisdom in pushing this project through to its conclusion. Much of it is due to the inevitable momentum that 20 writers and an almost published book, as well as more than eight thousand dollars in gracious funding, can achieve.

 

I am, however, confident that this project offers a case study in the challenges of starting a new, ambitious, unprecedented project. How to reconcile vision with reality? How to achieve buy-in and support without a track record and simply a proposal? How to adjust well-laid plans to rapidly changing scenarios and changing circumstances? How to stake out a common vision for a project that at times could be construed as meaning “all things to all men”? How to rally support without a solid end-game in mind?

 

Surprisingly, despite both scars and smiles, I don’t find myself much wiser. In fact, I believe everyone took away something different, and has a slightly different answer to this pertinent question. As this project continues to evolve, I am sure the answers that we will derive will change.

 

We did have some impact, though. We have touched the lives of more than 20 seniors, offering repeated visits and companionship. We reached out to more than 100 students from three schools, giving them insights into lesser known healthcare specialisations. We have had a launch attended by about 300 people over four hours, with performances by youths and seniors to celebrate the spirit of agelessness, and carnival games to promote empathy for the healthcare struggles of seniors.

Most importantly, though, I am hopeful we are promoting a humanistic spirit of medicine. I have long believed in the power of the written word, to teach and touch, to inspire and empower, to change the world, one idea a time.

 

Getting healthcare workers-in-training to write is to celebrate a hallowed tradition that hawks back to St Luke, and which was immortalised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Chekhov, and is practised today by the likes of Atul Gawande and Abraham Vergheus – the inter-mingling of the suture and the pen, the idea that healthcare practice is a microcosm of the problems that weigh upon the world.

 

And through this spirit we celebrate the little and forgotten people in our midst, the seniors who once bore the burden of our nation, who played a role in shaping the Singaporean culture. They may not be famous, or great, or influential. Yet in many other ways, our senior citizens are swarm of ants – in their multitudes, they can carry the great weight of history.

 

As George Elliot writes in the book ‘Middle March’: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

 

We owe a lot to this forgotten and unvisited people, our seniors. Their indomitable striving spirit was and still is the zeitgeist of the times. If we could offer nothing more, perhaps this book be a paean to both their sorrows and smiles, a peek into their former lives, and a reflection of our current world and what is to come.

A young girl experiences how it is like to live with cataracts by wearing a pair of special glasses during the book launch.