The People Behind the Smiles

by the Editorial Team

Behind the smiles and determination of recovering patients of either acute or chronic medical conditions are a handful of career professionals who act as pillars of support.

It’s not exactly an enviable career for Singapore’s medical social workers (MSW) in an economy where the rising cost of living and goods force many to prioritise monetary gains when picking their first job.

Individuals like Benjamin Png, 29, and Tang Kar Wai, 25, from the National University Hospital’s social work department, who assist people with childhood chronic conditions in dealing with mental, financial or emotional anguish, instead see emotional and fulfilling gains as they affect changes in patients’ lives and social policies.

Each of them plays diverse roles in administrative, management and policy planning positions for the hospital while helping patients and their families manage life crises, and helping them cope through trying times. Mr Png, for example, is working on a new information system for the patients. He declined to comment further as it is still being tested though he is hopeful for the improvements it will bring.

And as they try to reduce the burden of families afflicted by varying medical conditions, Mr Png, who has been in the industry for seven years, and Miss Tang, who joined the industry more than three years ago, tell us more about the emotional profits they achieve in their profession. 

What prompted you to begin a career in social work?

Benjamin: I’ve been living with kidney failure since I was 14. When I graduated from National University of Singapore (NUS) majoring in social work, coming back to a hospital to ply my trade was a natural thing to do. The people around me never made me feel like a medical condition was going to be in the way of the things I wanted to do and that was really important. I came back from university hoping to help my patients feel the same way as I have too.

Kar Wai: I was at the crossroads when approaching my graduation as a psychology major, pondering career options that allowed me to work in the people sector which I was interested in. At the time, I was volunteering in NUH and that’s when I met Benjamin who told me about social work. The rest, as they say, is history! 

What were some of the obstacles in your path to becoming a social worker?

B: Thankfully for me there were none, unless you count the pretty girls in NUS. But that’s more like a distraction. I was admitted to hospital for a short while during my first semester and I had to graduate later than everyone else. Some awesome professors there really made the journey a lot easier.

KW: When I first decided to make a switch to social work, my family didn’t understand much about the profession and held a number of common misconceptions. With time, they got to meet some of our patients while helping out at events. They learnt more about the work and have been really supportive throughout since. On another note, learning about and dealing with myself was, and is, a journey.

What experiences with a patient have moved you?

B: There are simply too many to remember, like the meeting that we just had with some of the Dreamcatchers (for this publication). But I guess the moments that really move me are those where I see exemplary love being shown within the family unit towards each other. And when patients themselves, no matter how young or old, rise above the challenges their illnesses or predicaments bring them.

KW: There are many for me, as well. But overall, I’d say being able to journey with the patients and seeing how they evolve, grow and change amid all the challenges is truly rewarding.

What goes on in your day at work?

B: Essentially a lot of talking and running around within the hospital and outside the hospital. Running from wards to ICUs to clinics and to patients’ homes. A teacher once told me that when I die, my skull will be chattering in the grave. Talking to patients, families, doctors, government agencies and voluntary organisations takes up most of my day. Then, there’s the paperwork! And when I am lucky, it’s filled with exciting meetings and fun people to plan and brainstorm awesome stuff, like Project Dreamcatchers.

KW: Meeting patients. Paperwork. And at times, the opportunity to meet with interesting people and organisations to work on collaborations for Project Dreamcatchers.

Finally, what are some of the plans for NUH’s social work department in 2014?

B: Lots! Hopefully Dreamcatchers can continue to build on all the great stuff done over the past two years. We are also building something with regards to palliative care and also with regards to the care of our young parents. I am afraid to share more in case I jinx it.

KW: I can’t speak for the whole MSW department which does involve exciting plans from the various disciplines, but for Dreamcatchers, we are hoping to build on the existing platforms to bring it further with greater patient involvement.