SINGAPORE: With her short hair, black semi-rimless glasses and petite frame, Madam Susheela K Chugani cuts a familiar figure at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).
After all, the woman that many call Sister Susheela has spent the past 23 years tending to the needs of patients at the hospital.
Despite being well past her retirement age, the 72-year-old, who has been in nursing for more than 50 years, continues to work full time at the long-stay psychogeriatric ward in IMH.
Age, according to Mdm Chugani, is not a limiting factor when it comes to caring for patients. For one of her dementia patients who has mobility issues, Mdm Chugani will hold her shoulders as she attempts to walk during therapy sessions.
“The first time I did it, my patient asked: ‘You so old you, still want to hold me?’ and I replied: ‘Yes, let’s go. If I can, you can do it too.’”
For another patient who refused to wear clothes and would sleep naked in his own urine, Mdm Chugani insisted on bathing and clothing him every day. She would also treat him to his favourite you char kway (fried dough fritters) as she trained him to wear clothes and use the toilet.
Within months, the patient began to show signs of improvement and would say “Good morning” to Mdm Chugani when she arrives at the ward.
“I spend a lot of time talking to them and I make sure I tell them every day that being ill is not the end of the world,” said the senior staff nurse. “I tell them to make up their mind that they are going to get well and walk out of the hospital. There is always hope.”
“YOU WANT TO SHAME ME”
Being a nurse was an ambition that Mdm Chugani had for as long as she could remember. While studying at the Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School, she joined the St John Ambulance Brigade and recalled being “very excited” every time she wore her uniform.
“I loved going to the sports meet and events like that. You get to carry a first aid kit and be on stand-by. While waiting, I would pretend to do so many things,” she said with a chuckle.
After her O-Levels, she decided it was time to turn her dream into reality but her father, who had been hoping for Mdm Chugani to join the family business, tore up her job application form.
“Back in those days, if your father runs a business, you will work in the family store and then wait to get married.”
But the feisty elder child of seven siblings did not give up. Noticing another newspaper advertisement calling for nurses, young Mdm Chugani decided to seek the help of her father’s best friend, who offered his home address for her application form.
This time round, Mdm Chugani scored the job at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). Her father was furious.
“He said: ‘You want to shame me ... If I knew you'd be so stubborn, I would have killed you,” she recalled. “Whatever my father said, I kept quiet because from young, we were told not to talk back to our father. But in my heart, I knew what I wanted to do.”
And even after Mdm Chugani started work, her father still had hopes that his eldest daughter would soon give up due to the challenging nature of the job.
“At that time, my father had just been through a fistulotomy. The nurses had to shave his private parts and he thought: ‘How can my daughter do that? Surely, she will not be able to take it.’ So he thought I’ll leave within three months.”
But Mdm Chugani stayed on, drawing strength from self-help book “Think And Grow Rich” written by American author Napoleon Hill in 1937.
“One thing I remembered was that once you make up your mind, nobody can stop you,” she said.
Her first stint was at the female ward in SGH – a place she still has fond memories of. She remembered attending to many poor patients who would be admitted into hospital in “filthy conditions”. Together with other nurses, Mdm Chugani would bathe and cloth them.
Smiling as she reminisced about the past, she said: “When I saw them all clean and comfortable, I’d be so happy. They were always so appreciative and willing to say thank you.”
That was in the 1960s when nurses had to wash and sterilise glass syringes, as well as write up patient reports by hand most of the time. This comes on top of basic duties such as taking temperatures and dressing wounds.
It was tough work but Mdm Chugani never regretted her decision to enter nursing. “I am always happy. Even if I have any worries, I will forget them because when I’m work, it’s just me and my patient.”
This remains the case when she was posted to IMH, then known as the Woodbridge Hospital, in 1994. Before that, she had moved from SGH to other health institutions like the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, as well as the Communicable Diseases Centre.
Not knowing what to expect at the mental hospital, Mdm Chugani admitted that she felt “apprehensive” initially so she turned to what she trusted the most – books.
“I went to the library and started reading up. The more I read, the more interesting I find the human mind,” she said.
“Do you know how much these patients have to go through when they see things that are not there or hear things that other people don’t? If you know, you will learn how to appreciate whatever you have and I told myself that I must help these people to get well.”
Over the past two decades of working in the various wards at IMH, Mdm Chugani figured out how best to interact with patients and has her own way to calm even the most agitated ones.
“My patients are beautiful people and they are not difficult at all,” she said gently, adding that she prefers to address her patients by name. “If I don’t know their names, I’ll call them brother or sister. Once you build a rapport with them, they will respect you and will not hurt you.
“I’ve been here so many years and not once have I been abused verbally or physically,” she emphasised.
Mdm Chugani also tries to rationalise with her patients. She remembered a patient who became very upset after being diagnosed with schizophrenia after his A-Levels. For months, Mdm Chugani tried coaxing him to take medication.
“I told him: ‘You are better than me. I only have O-Levels (but) I’ve worked hard. You make up your mind, follow the instructions of the doctor and tell yourself that you are going to get better.’”
Seven years on, the patient has since recovered and sends Mdm Chugani a thank-you card every Nurses’ Day and Christmas Day. “This gives me the satisfaction that I'm doing my job well and makes me want to do more,” she said.
“I’VE JUST BEEN TRYING TO BE A GOOD HUMAN BEING”
Throughout the course of her work, there were certainly less-than-pleasant days but Mdm Chugani said she constantly reminds herself how blessed she is to have found her passion so early in life.
Nevertheless, she is not oblivious to the challenges of psychiatric nursing and has met younger healthcare workers who have thought of calling it quits.
“But I tell them if I’m still here, why are you leaving?”
But she does not think her decision to work in the mental hospital makes her a rare breed. Over the years, she said there have been more efforts to raise awareness for mental health and there are younger nurses who choose a career in psychiatric nursing.
“Last time when I told people I was working at Woodbridge, they will stare at me and go ‘Huh?’ but I don’t think it’s like that now.”
And it seems that Mdm Chugani’s ever-burning passion has not just been a morale booster for her patients, but also for her younger co-workers.
Multi-skill therapy assistant Ong Hui Ting, who partners Mdm Chugani in exercise programmes, said there are times when she feels discouraged. “But no matter how tired she is and how tired I am, she will always be the one saying ‘Come on Hui Ting, let’s get this done!’ It’s an endless positivity that she gives off.”
For Mdm Chugani, her husband and two children have been her pillars of support. Even her father also came round to accepting her career choice.
“He was really happy that I was a nurse when he got sick. He was in SGH and he told the doctor that his daughter is a nursing officer at KK,” she recalled.
“When I reached the hospital, it was the first in a long time that he called me ‘my child’. I always felt that he doesn’t show me as much love as he does to my other siblings but from then on, (our relationship) got much better,” Mdm Chugani said, breaking out into a wide smile.
Even though her husband has been egging her to retire, the energetic grandmother of three does not have plans to leave nursing for now.
“I want to have a purpose in life,” she said.
The veteran nurse was given the Extraordinary Nurse Award at the IMH Nurses’ Day celebration last year and received the Ministry of Health’s Nurses Merit Award in 2005.
But for her, despite the recognition she has received and the respect she gets from colleagues, she said she has simply been doing her job.
“A lot of people forget why we come to this world. For me, I just want to be a good human being and help whoever I can.”