They held the hands of dying COVID-19 patients when their families couldn’t. Meet the NCID Medical Social Workers

SINGAPORE: When the first deaths from COVID-19 hit Singapore, Dr Ho Lai Peng was there to help families through the grief and isolation caused by the pandemic.

Two years later, the National Center of Infectious Diseases (NCID) chief medical and social worker still remembers every detail.

The hardest part was that the families couldn’t be with their loved ones in their final moments, Dr Ho said.

She remembers a patient who was fighting for his life but unable to see his wife because she had also contracted COVID-19 and had to be isolated.

“It was very hard, especially for the spouse… not being able to see (him), and we are going to tell him that he was deceased.”

The woman reacted with “disbelief”, Dr Ho said.

Dr. Ho and his colleagues frequently helped family members make video calls to isolated patients. There were times when the family asked them to hold their loved one’s hand for them, she said.

They would also help carry out instructions from family members to help prepare the body for their final rites, such as dressing them in clothing chosen by the family and even applying makeup to the deceased.

They were also asked to place a favorite accessory next to the body or a religious object depending on their faith.

She remembers that at the start of the pandemic, deceased intubated patients did not have their tubes removed as a precaution not to infect others. It was necessary when little was known about the virus, but also painful for family members, Dr Ho said.

Eventually they appealed and the Department of Health changed its guidelines.

“We have to make them look good, because that will be the last image they will have of this patient,” she said.

“Death is coming, but how can we take this very, very painful moment and make it a meaningful moment for them.”

At the same time, they were to comfort the living. She remembers bringing food or small comforts from outside the NCID to patients and lending a sympathetic ear.

Dr. Ho, who has 30 years of experience, was one of two NCID medical social workers who shared their experiences with CNA on helping patients during the pandemic. She currently has 13 medical social workers and five support staff on her team.

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