Last Day at Work: The veteran nurse whose wish to help save lives will never stop
In the new series where Channel NewsAsia profiles individuals leaving the workforce after long and storied careers, Jalelah Abu Baker speaks to a nursing veteran whose work will not stop when he retires.
SINGAPORE: Hearing about Mr Goh Teck Koon’s first brush with nursing, it is almost a surprise that he decided to stay working in healthcare for more than half a century.
He had just started training to be a nurse in 1964, when racial riots broke out. Even before completing his training in basic nursing procedures, Mr Goh found himself in a surgical ward, needing to help people injured in violence. His first patient was a man with a wound to his abdomen and Mr Goh had to remove his dressing so that he could be stitched up.
“To my horror, I saw a lump of intestine on the patient’s body. That gave me a shock! I turned pale,” he said, the fear he felt years ago still showing in his eyes. His reaction at the time was so strong that he had to be escorted to another ward.
Putting that behind him, Mr Goh came to terms with the fact that he would continue to see such things as a nurse, and started to develop his career. He retired in December at the age of 75 after 54 years in the nursing profession. His final role was to teach the next generation of nursing professionals as a clinical educator.
With his straight-backed, no-nonsense demeanour, Mr Goh does not come across as someone to get emotional about the possibility of missing his work, which has been such a central part of his life.
But the dozens of farewell cards left on his table at Changi General Hospital (CGH) and the legacy he leaves behind show that his colleagues - and the profession to which he has dedicated his life - will surely miss him.
THE PRIDE IN SAVING LIVES
This nursing veteran has been instrumental in shaping and developing nursing practices and standards that will continue well beyond his retirement.
However, when asked about his proudest moment, he revealed that it boils down to a patient’s life.
As he remembered the incident imprinted in his memory, his energy picked up and he was transported back to the day it happened. He remembered numerous little details despite the years that have passed.
It was in the 1980s, when a 39-year-old bank manager was admitted to hospital after a heart attack and was told to rest. During visiting hours, many people came to see him and Mr Goh was concerned about how this could affect the man's recovery.
“You cannot have so many visitors," he told the patient, and suggested a note could be put outside saying no visitors were allowed. In response, the man asked Mr Goh not to be so “straight” and said that he needed to talk to his clients. Mr Goh was not able to convince him that his health was more important, and he left it, albeit reluctantly.
The next morning, when Mr Goh was attending to him, the patient had a fit and collapsed.
He checked the heart monitor and realised that the man was going to die if he did not intervene. So against all the rules, he took a debrillator and shocked him, rousing him to life.
At the time, nurses were not allowed to administer such treatment, but his instincts to save a life overrode the need to abide by the rules. Indeed, although he could have got into trouble, the man's doctor was grateful for the action he took. Mr Goh was also cushioned by his quick thinking to document the man's abnormal heart function.
“I felt very useful because I could save somebody’s life just like that,” he said.
LEAVING A LEGACY
In fact, such acts have proven to be just the tip of the iceberg of his contribution to nursing. Over the years, he was in charge of developing and improving nursing standards and quality of care at CGH, while also being roped in to help it attain international accreditation.
He also played an integral role in the setting up of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) there.
Mr Goh recalled his role in establishing the ICU with particular satisfaction. When the ICU was set up, there were electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors with alarm systems. However, there were not enough people who could interpret the ECG readings and tell why the alarm triggered. Data from the ECG showed if the heart is working normally.
“Every time I went on my rounds, and the alarm sounded, they would say false alarm. I’d ask them ‘how do you know its false alarm? Did you check?' I found it very risky. Sometimes when you think it’s a false alarm, it turns out to be an actual alarm, (so if) you neglect it the patient will die,” he said.
To solve the problem, he developed a protocol on how to manage the alarm system.
He also played a part in spreading the awareness of CPR, or Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation training. In fact, he was responsible for bringing in to CGH the all-familiar mannequins that are used in such training.
Mr Goh laughed a little every time he spoke of his achievements in his decades in the nursing industry. It meant he laughed a lot over the one-hour interview.
He was also an advocate for other nurses when they were at risk of not getting enough rest. At the time, nurses might work the night shift from Monday to Sunday, then get a “sleeping day”, one more day off and then return to work the next day.
He proposed to the Ministry of Health (MOH) that a better approach would be that they should work four nights, then get three days of rest including one sleeping day. The ministry rejected the idea on the basis of a lack of manpower.
“We did our own pilot project. We took a ward roster and planned it out with the existing staff. We submitted it to them, and they approved. After that, (the norm) became four nights,” he said, sounding triumphant at the recollection.
MAKING THE MOST OF HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Perhaps his never-say-die attitude is to be expected, given Mr Goh’s humble beginnings. He lived with his parents, three brothers and a sister in a rented flat on Anson Road.
His parents did not work, and as a child, Mr Goh would help them by hawking the kueh, porridge and bee hoon made by his mother. That left him with little time to study. Still, he made it to secondary school.
However, he did not get a certificate at the end of his four years. His effortless enunciation provides no clue, but Mr Goh failed English. So, despite a lack of qualifications, he went out to work with a paper importer for two years.
All that time, he did not give up on his education. He went to night classes and eventually passed English, paving the way for him to apply for a job as a nurse.
BAD JOB MARKET LED HIM TO NURSING
The story of how he entered the industry is, however, not a romantic one. He decided to join nursing amid a bad job market.
“Nursing wasn’t my first option. In fact my first option was to be a clerical officer. Somehow or other, they offered me nursing instead and being the first job available, I grabbed it instead of letting it go,” he says.
Mr Goh was a late bloomer, by his own admission, but he may have accidentally landed in the perfect job for him.
“I told myself, I must work hard, and learn as much as I can. So I actually excelled when I went into nursing,” he said.
Even now, his love for learning burns bright. He subscribes to online journals and keeps himself abreast of the latest medical changes and advancements. Where he feels there could be improvements, he gets in touch with doctors and questions them.
"This is one area where we can't just depend on what we do here. We must also know what's happening internationally," he said.
RETIRING, BUT HELPING NEVER STOPS
Even as the curtain draws on his career, Mr Goh will not be turning his back on healthcare. CPR training mannequins look set to continue to be more a part of his life than relaxing walks in the park.
He was a founding member of the then-Singapore National Resuscitation Council, now known as the Singapore Resuscitation & First Aid Council (SRFAC). His work with them will be taking centre-stage.
“I’ll continue when I retire, I will do a bit of auditing for our council, and also some of these private companies will ask me to teach because I am a chief instructor," he said.
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His weekends will also be spent on giving refresher lessons to doctors from private clinics, as that is when they have more free time.
“A lot of the time, patients collapse at home. You can do something then, but if you wait for the ambulance to come, by that time it’s too late. We teach them to do CPR ... and lives can be saved if you know how to do it. And it’s not difficult. This is something we need to spread.”
Mr Goh became a nurse at a time when it was almost unheard of for men to join the profession, and when it did not have the best image, but he did not care. It did not stop him.
“People used to ask 'Why did you go into nursing? It’s a dirty job, you have to clean up patients, clean up their mess'."
His reply then was simple and he still holds it close to his heart: There is nothing so nice as nursing.
And while he was matter-of-fact during the interview, in the final moments of his career, when his younger colleagues gathered to sing him a farewell song and tell him they will miss him, a crack appeared in his stoic veneer.
The tears sprung to his eyes and one could see just what nursing means to this man who has given his life to help others.