While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of the Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.
With a nursing career spanning 40 years and counting, Merdeka Generation nurse Tang Lin Yok has seen it all.
The 64-year-old said she can run through a whole range of emotions in just one day on the job.
"A nurse can go through the whole gamut of the human experience in just one shift," said Ms Tang, assistant director of nursing at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
There is the joy of delivering a newborn and witnessing patients triumph over their medical adversities, she said. Then, there is the weight of knowing that some patients may never leave the hospital alive.
Ms Tang first realised how challenging her job would be when she was a nursing student at Singapore General Hospital in the 1970s, when she was in her late teens.
She remembers her senses being overwhelmed by the hands-on nature of her job then.
"I initially wanted to be a teacher, but you had to pay to join the teaching college. I did not have to pay to join nursing training," she said.
"Things were so different back then. To check someone's glucose levels, we had to collect the patient's urine in a test tube and then heat it up with a Bunsen burner with the necessary reagents and look out for a colour change," she said. These days, nurses use a hand-held machine to do a finger prick to measure a patient's blood sugar levels.
"It was very manual and hands-on back then," she said. "It was not an easy career to embark on. But it has been one of the most meaningful journeys in my life."
As a trainee nurse for three years, Ms Tang received a stipend of $190 a month, which helped with her family's finances.
Ms Tang was one of 11 children living with her parents in a rented room in a Rochor Road shophouse. She was the second oldest.
When she was 11, the ship her mechanic father worked on sank. She never heard from him again.
Her mother, a seamstress, worked hard for the children.
After completing secondary school in the early 1970s, Ms Tang enrolled in the nursing programme.
After graduating, she worked at different hospitals. In her mid-20s, with about seven years of experience under her belt, she was selected as one of the pioneers in the Singapore Fire Brigade Ambulance Service - a dedicated ambulance service for government hospitals then.
Each ambulance unit had a driver, a helper and a nurse. Ms Tang was often the first medical responder at accident and emergency sites. It was her job to stabilise a patient during the ambulance ride to a hospital.
"It took me a while to get over the gruesome sight of those injured in road accidents and those who died as a result of suicide," she said.
Ms Tang also witnessed and handled births when rushing pregnant women in labour to the hospital.
In 1979, she tied the knot and in 1982, became a mother herself. Ms Tang has three children.
In 1988, she joined Mount Elizabeth Hospital, and moved to the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) two years later.
There she spent the next 20 years of her career, first as a nursing staff member, and eventually as head of the nursing department.
"Work was intense in ICU," she said. "I can never forget the fear of losing a young four-year-old boy whose heart stopped four times after he had open heart surgery.
"The boy was frail and under my care. His heart stopped twice. I remember the adrenaline rush when I restarted his heart.
"Thank goodness he recovered and was later discharged.
"It was frightening. Patients' lives are in our hands, so we really need to be alert and take care of them.
"Nursing others can often take a toll on one's emotional health."
Ms Tang added that her colleagues often talk to one another during breaks or after work to ease their stress.
"Sometimes we grow attached to patients and their family members whom we see every day. It takes a toll on us when the patient does not survive. But we have to recover, be emotionally strong and give our best care to the next patient."
Since 2010, Ms Tang has been managing the various wards in the hospital.
Despite the challenges, she has no regrets entering the nursing profession.
"At the hospital, we see life and death. That has made me more aware of the blessings around me.
"It is an emotional job, but it is one that all nurses do with dedication and pride."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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