1989 was a big year for SGH. The Hospital was restructured and one of the consequences was the re-organisation of Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy into three separate entities. Each department had its own chief. Ho Meng Jang was head of Occupational Therapy, Albert Lee, head of Physiotherapy and Judith Chua, head of Speech Therapy. Albert Lee also served as the overall coordinator of the Rehabilitation Centre. “In 1990, we went to the US together,” says Albert Lee, Senior Principal Physiotherapist. “It was a work trip to learn how the therapists worked alongside doctors.”
After the trip, they proposed the start of an advisory board at the Rehabilitation Centre comprising some heads of medical and surgical departments and senior therapists. The objective was to foster better working relationships between the clinicians and therapists by keeping everyone up to date on the Centre’s activities and other relevant matters.
This example is but one of many instances of the contributions made by Allied Health Professionals like Meng Jang and Albert to the development of their disciplines, without which the widespread recognition of today wouldn’t have been possible.
Albert shares that he had joined SGH in 1957 to work as a Dispensary Assistant. He decided to apply to be a pupil in Physiotherapy after he saw a circular about the position one and a half years later. It was a decision that confounded his colleagues in the Dispensary.
“Physiotherapy then was a very a new profession. The Chinese would always go to the tie dah yi sang [Cantonese for traditional Chinese physician] or bone-setter, the Malays would go to the bomohs, the Indians also had their own traditional medicine. People preferred to stick with traditional methods. Even my colleagues were laughing at me. They said this was a ladies’ job,” Albert says. The profession was predominantly female then.
Whilst he was a pupil, he received a scholarship offer by the colonial government to study physiotherapy in London. But he had to decide very quickly if he was going to accept it or not. “Before I could make up my mind, I was given two weeks’ notice to go to London to study Physiotherapy. The reason was that there was a new government coming in. Self-government, 1959,” Albert continues, chuckling at the recollection.
Meng Jang was 18 or 19 when he saw an advertisement for pupils in Occupational Therapy. He didn’t know anything about the discipline but he sent in an application.
“I just wanted some pocket money before I went to University of Singapore. There were six months between ‘H’ Level and university. After I joined as pupil in 1961, Mr Ho Guan Lim [then Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health] said, ‘We’re going to send you to Queensland!’ What I didn’t know was that there’s a scholarship attached to the post I had applied for. When your family is poor, and here is the government saying they’re going to send you to the University of Queensland, I mean it’s a golden opportunity!”
Meng Jang was awarded the prestigious Colombo Plan Scholarship and studied in Queensland, Australia, for three years. He was the first in Singapore to be sent overseas to study Occupational Therapy.
That was the start of his journey to becoming one of Singapore’s pioneers in Occupational Therapy.
“Occupational Therapy is about returning people to work,” Meng Jang says. He remembers a patient from the 80s. The man had had a stroke and wasn’t allowed to drive. He was a taxi driver. After rehabilitation, he overcame his physical and emotional barriers and was able to use his hand again. He regained his driving license and resumed work as a taxi driver. To thank Meng Jang, he drove to SGH and gave him a bag of oranges.
These days, the training of occupational therapists is markedly different from what Meng Jang went through in the 60s. He had to be adept at arts and crafts such as weaving, pottery and sewing, because these were used extensively in Occupational Therapy. Before he left for his university studies in Australia, his supervisor at Woodbridge Hospital, a British expatriate called Mr Wadham-Eyre, taught him how to weave on rug looms and tabby looms. He was glad he learnt because in Queensland, he soon found out that “weaving was a core curriculum”.
In the early days of Physiotherapy, exercise, heat therapy and electrical stimulation were the main therapeutic services. More varied treatment modalities were made available from the 50s onwards with the introduction of machines. However, Physiotherapy is about the human touch. Albert is most animated and gregarious on the subject of empathy for patients. “It’s not the knowledge you have that makes you a better therapist. If you don’t treat the patient as a human being, no matter how clever or well-qualified you are, your patient will not listen to your advice. What matters is your empathy. When the physiotherapist shows interest in the patient, the patient will trust him.”
He shares that during his time, physiotherapists were exposed to conditions such as poliomyelitis and leprosy. They were well-rounded through their wide-ranging exposure to patients with all kinds of ailments.
Later on, Albert will make a passing remark that his interest in Physiotherapy probably began after seeing his father struggle with paraplegia. He doesn’t say more than that, but already one has an inkling of how his emphasis on empathy comes from personal experience early on in life.
Listening to Albert and Meng Jang, there is a distinct sense of how the lives of well-meaning, educated and compassionate individuals add up to the life of a great nation. They are not only members of the generation who had built Singapore, the Pioneer Generation; they are also among the first generation of Allied Health Professionals who have made SGH the People’s Hospital it is today.
Excerpt is from Volume Two of SGH’s commemorative book “Sanctuary and Stronghold: SGH at 200”, authored by Dr Yeo Wei Wei. Read more stories from the book here
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