Over a month ago, 27-year-old Tan Li Mei was working as a product manager in New York City. Today, she is a Covid-19 survivor in Singapore. Her week in a National University Hospital recovery ward fighting the virus gave her a first-hand perspective of the frontline heroes who tended to patients like her.

She also got a front-seat view of how other victims, many of whom were elderly, suffered alone.

Not wanting more vulnerable seniors to go through what she did, Li Mei’s experience has inspired her to co-found a ground-up movement called Kampung Kakis to give back to society after her second lease on life.

Says Li Mei: “I wanted to pay forward what our healthcare workers have done for me and make a difference in the community, especially when I think about the elderly who don’t have caregivers and other people falling through the cracks.”

“I wanted to create a platform where people who need help can find help from someone staying close to them. Hopefully this kampung spirit can extend beyond Covid-19.”

Getting Covid

But back in March, things were bleak in New York. Looking back, Li Mei said she realised that the warning signs had been there. The city was on lockdown. Numbers of the infected were escalating. Businesses were closing. Li Mei’s sister urged her to come home because their parents are worried. She quickly booked a flight back to Singapore but it was too late. Li Mei was already feeling fatigued.

She admits to the Pride: “I would be very tired by 8pm and I would sleep 12 hours a day. A few times when I went for a run or did a workout at home, I got really breathless. But I thought maybe I was unfit.”

The day before her flight home, Li Mei developed a sore throat.

After she reached Singapore on Mar 23, Li Mei started her Stay Home Notice, taking extra precautions to distance herself safely from her family.

She says: “I tried to be very careful around my parents. I made sure they left my food at my door. Everything (I used to eat) was disposable. I had my own bathroom.”

Thankfully, because of these precautions, her parents did not fall ill. But when a few Singaporean friends who were with her in New York tested positive upon returning home, Li Mei decided to get herself tested on Mar 26.

That was when she discovered she had Covid-19.

Even though her worst fears had come true, Li Mei says that her concerns were unfounded.

“I was very lucky. The doctors said I was one of the fastest recovering patients!”

If Li Mei had one word to describe her experience in the hospital, it would be “gratitude”.

“I’ve always taken our healthcare system and the quality of our doctors and nurses for granted. Medical workers in NYC are having to raise funds to buy personal protective equipment to protect themselves, while nurses in Singapore change out of their PPEs every time they enter a different isolation ward.”

Li Mei adds: “I realised our healthcare professionals are all very compassionate – everyone was very reassuring, telling me not to worry even though I could tell they were very tired.”

“The level of attention to detail and amount of care that they give to their patients is so different compared to anywhere else in the world. I felt very thankful to be a Singaporean.”

covid-19 survivor receiving care from nurses and doctors in NUH
Li Mei receiving care from nurses and doctors in NUH. / Image Source: Tan Li Mei

During her stay, family and friends were not allowed to visit, but Li Mei communicated with her parents on WhatsApp regularly to give them updates and put them at ease.

Even though she was away from loved ones, Li Mei formed a bond with four other women in the same Covid treatment ward, who helped each other get through their recovery process.

“We had a little community going on. I was new to the ward and they welcomed me. They helped me feel like I was not alone in this because we were all going through the same thing.”

“To keep the morale up, whenever someone got discharged or moved to the recovery facility, we would cheer and congratulate them!”

It wasn’t just the patients and the medical personnel who helped her keep her spirits up. Even the staff member who delivered the food every day often brought warmth and cheer to the ward.

Said Li Mei: “The ‘uncle’ was very funny. If I don’t eat my snacks or drink my Milo he will be like ‘eh your Milo turning cold’. (That little act of kindness) made such a big difference.”

Li Mei is also thankful that as a young and healthy person, she was able to recover quickly. In the ward across the hall, she had a first-hand view of an elderly Covid sufferer who was not doing as well.

“He was on his bed the whole time looking miserable. One day, his symptoms worsened. The call bell rang constantly. He was vomiting, breathless and the nurses and doctors were all rushing to him. It was quite hard seeing someone suffer that much from Covid.”

“It could have been me. Worse, it could have been my parents,” she added, soberly.

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Helping others through tough times

Seeing elderly patients suffering from the disease and receiving such care from medical workers deeply impacted Li Mei.

Inspired by the kindness she saw in the wards, and galvanised by her personal battle with the disease, Li Mei thought of a neighbourhood buddy system to support the lonely elderly and low-income families during Covid-19.

Two weeks after her discharge from NUH, Li Mei, with the help of two other millennials, launched Kampung Kakis.

When she reached out to the residents’ committees to look for help, Li Mei met Michelle Lau, 26, chairman of her RC. She helped rally other RCs within the Gek Poh Ville community in Jurong, as well as design a resource kit for distribution.

Together with Denise Tay, 25, Li Mei’s long-time friend with a passion for helping others, the three formed the core team that started Kampung Kakis.

Within its first two weeks of launch, Kampung Kakis received 240 Kaki sign ups. So far, 11 beneficiaries have been matched with Kakis and they are looking to raise greater awareness to reach more seniors in need of a Kaki.

covid-19 survivor distributing posters at a mask distribution drive
Li Mei and Michelle distributing posters at a mask distribution drive in early April. / Image Source: Tan Li Mei

“Kampung Kakis is as effective as the strength of our network. We match based on proximity and needs. We try to not match anyone beyond a 20-minute walk because we hope that after the circuit breaker ends, they can still be a befriender to their Kaki-in-need,” says Li Mei.

In line with the circuit breaker measures, Kakis are advised to stay home as much as possible and leave the house (while adhering to safe distancing) only if volunteers are providing assistance to persons with disability or seniors above the age of 60 with their daily needs.

Kakis can also provide help through various ways that don’t require physical contact, such as picking up groceries, providing meals, or simply lending a listening ear.

covid-19 survivor ground-up movement Kampung Kakis
Image Source: Kampung Kakis

“We are not a social service organisation so we don’t fundraise or give out food or monetary help. We encourage our Kakis to help within their own means and if they are not comfortable giving financial assistance, they don’t have to provide it,” says Li Mei.

One of Kampung Kaki’s beneficiaries is a 23-year-old single mother of three young children who had lost her job. She had been recently matched with a Kaki who is helping her find support and resources available from the Government.

Another beneficiary, a man who lives alone, was facing stress and anxiety over job fears. Kampung Kakis has successfully matched him with a nearby Kaki who has been listening and providing career mentorship.

“Having someone check on you regularly, encouraging you not to give up, helping you to get out of your situation can make a big difference,” Li Mei says.

covid-19 survivor helping elderly woman
Li Mei taking an elderly woman (her first Kaki!) in her neighbourhood for dialysis treatment / Image Source: Tan Li Mei

Currently, Kampung Kakis is looking to improve its model.

Li Mei plans to return to New York when the situation calms down (she is still employed at the same company and working remotely), but she still hopes to continue helping Singaporeans even while in the US.

“No matter what happens, I hope we don’t stop serving our community and that we keep growing the team, bringing together people who have the same mindset and passion for helping others, and see where that takes us.”

Li Mei says her time in hospital changed how she saw the world.

“Covid gave me a lot of time in the hospital to reflect. When you know this is a deadly disease and you hear about people with mild symptoms today going into ICU the next day, it makes you think.”

“I don’t want to waste my life. If I had to die tomorrow, (I want to know) what have I done with my life, who have I helped, have I made this world a better place?”

covid-19 survivor, with her friends, co-founders of Kampung Kakis
Co-founders of Kampung Kakis (clockwise from top left) Li Mei, Denise and Michelle / Image Source: Tan Li Mei

If you or someone you know needs a Kaki, sign up here.
If you would like to volunteer as a Kaki, sign up here.

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Top Image: Tan Li Mei