I know Soma through his wife. Our wives have known each other since secondary school and have kept in touch.

During the circuit breaker, we would have family Zoom meetings. It was a nice way of catching up over virtual drinks with the kids chiming in. Both husband and wife are doctors, but we hardly saw Soma, who specialises in Otolaryngology (or ENT), since he worked shifts.

Sometimes, his wife would tell us that he is in the other room. That was odd, until I figured out that Soma was part of the frontline team and was keeping away from his family as much as possible.

As Phase 2 kicked in, I texted him and we arranged to meet for coffee. I wanted to know how my friend handled being a frontliner.

We met at a café at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital where he worked. He was in a casual white shirt and grinned when he saw me. It has been months since we met in person. When he got to my table (I had arrived early), I instinctively reached out to shake his hand, then pulled back in dismay, a haze of “wait, it’s Covid, he’s a frontliner, am I allowed to shake his hand?” thoughts racing through my head.

I think my kind friend saw the indecision on my face and saved me from further embarrassment by acknowledging me with a namaste instead. We talked shop for a bit and then I asked him about his life now.

A day in the life of a doctor in frontlines

Family time
Soma with his family (Dr Uma his wife, Avinaash, Dinesh and Ganga Arthi) Credit: Soma Subramaniam

A typical day starts for Soma around 6am as he and his wife get their three kids ready before walking them to their nearby primary school. Breakfast is usually prepared at home.

Then it’s off to work at 7.15am with his favourite radio station on during the morning drive. If Soma is rostered for foreign worker dormitory duty (which happens about two to three times a week) he has to leave even earlier, which means missing breakfast with the kids before they head off. Those days start with a briefing at the hospital at 7am before the team departs for the dorms.

Being in charge of the medical operations at the dorms means that Soma makes medical decisions on the ground for all foreign workers who report sick for the day. The workers with minor ailments are managed at the dormitory itself but those who appear more sick will be sent by ambulance to the hospital for closer monitoring.

On his regular work days in the hospital, Soma catches up with meetings in the mornings, followed by outpatient clinic consultations or surgeries.

Soma is also on 24-hour emergency call duty seven days a month, where he is on standby any time of the day or night. On such days, he stays at home and catches up on life outside the medical world.

Talking about outside the medical world – call him Assistant Prof Soma when he’s at NUS, since he’s also a clinical lecturer for medical students and postgraduate residents.

Although his lectures are now conducted over Zoom, he still does small group tutorials with his students. Soma tells me how interacting with the students keeps him up to date with the latest publications and literature. This is good for him, he says, adding with a laugh that he now knows about TikTok thanks to his students.

I let out a small chuckle at ourselves, two forty-something men slowly recognising that we are now experiencing from our kids what we used to do to our parents. It’s TikTok for the kids now. It was a Walkman during my days.

Then we got interrupted. It was a phone call for Soma. He quickly answered. I noticed that he has his family photo as a screensaver on his nondescript non-flashy handphone. “Do you have to go?” No, it’s just a colleague who wanted to reschedule the work roster, he replied.

Then I asked: “Were you worried when you got rostered to the dorms?”

He smiled gently and said that he had concerns and fear, but decided to go ahead as it was the right thing to do at the end of the day.

So, for the initial few weeks from late March, he elected to stay out, living at an assigned hotel room, and then later in a separate room at home. This was probably the toughest period for him, said Soma.

The planning sounded simple and logical but when it was time to do it, the loneliness hit him. He got used to it after a while though, he told me, talking to his family over the phone and hearing their laughter, knowing that they were safe was good enough!

Medical Frontliners at Foreign Worker Dormitories Singapore
The team at work at one of the foreign worker dormitories. Credit: Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

With strict discipline, Soma adhered to the infection control measures, such as donning the protective gear and the other processes like showering and disinfecting protocols after dormitory operations and strict hand hygiene, which were able to shield them from the disease, despite the close contact with hundreds of infected foreign workers.

He had to do this daily so he could eventually sit down and have dinner with his family. But it was worth it, said Soma.

Still, he kept physical interaction to the minimum.

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Family concerns and challenges

His wife is also a practising doctor in the public sector. This presented unique challenges as both of them are exposed on a daily basis to the virus. Initially, his older boys were shocked that both mummy and daddy were in contact with Covid patients, but with time, they got used to it.

Not so much Soma’s own parents though. His parents still worry for him. Despite reassuring them on the safety processes and that he is part of a professional team of experts, he still gets frequent phone calls from his parents.

“My mum got some herbal remedies for me to take to ‘boost’ my immune system – It tasted horrible but no matter how old you are, you always listen to your mother!” he told me with a laugh.

He does miss family time with his kids though. Before Covid-19, weekends were spent with the children – helping them with schoolwork, playing with them or just watching a movie together. Cycling as a family around his neighbourhood was a ritual that they have given up too, for now. Just last year, the family started baking together, something Soma told me he enjoys very much (and is pretty good at!). They have stopped doing all that for the time being.

There were also challenges at work. Funnily enough, he said, he missed not being able to eat with his colleagues. Catching with each other over a quick makan was something they always took for granted and he hopes to be able to do that again soon. I told him that that day will come sooner rather than later thanks to him and all our Covid-19 heroes.

A tribute to all our COVID-19 heroes

Our COVID-19 heroes have worked tirelessly to help us through the pandemic, and continue to do so every day. Now, it’s time to pay a heartfelt tribute to them – from Singapore, to Singapore’s heroes. #BeGreaterSG #SGUnitedP.S. let's continue to appreciate them every day! Put on your widest smile of appreciation whenever you see a frontline or essential worker :)Learn more: https://www.kindness.sg/tribute

Singapore Kindness Movement 發佈於 2020年8月26日 星期三

 

Soma doesn’t just have to deal with the daily grind of being in the frontlines.

He told me: “There was this recent case of a Covid patient who was critically ill and needed a surgical tracheostomy (surgery done to wean him off the mechanical ventilator). The surgery itself was particularly challenging, as I had to wear a PAPR (powered air-purifying respirator), also known as the ‘space suit’. Operating while having all this equipment on posed an additional challenge. Fortunately, the surgery went well, the patient has been weaned off the ventilator and can now breath on his own again.”

Soma tells me emphatically that wearing masks when going out has been the single most important thing we have done in Singapore to control the spread of the virus. He reminded me that we should not slack in our efforts and we do it not just for ourselves but for our loved ones and others as well.

He hopes being a responsible civilian will go a long way. Following simple rules of wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding unnecessary trips to a public place where possible will make a difference.

I quickly looked around and took a sip of my coffee, grateful that we are in Phase 2 and can now dine at restaurants and F&B outlets and masks can be removed when eating or drinking.

I asked: “So what has kept you going all this time?”

It’s to come home to his family and interact with his children. They just give him a completely different perspective to his daily challenges, and this “switch” helps him to maintain a balance, said Soma. The other source of motivation for Soma is hearing (and sometimes reading) the words of encouragement and gratitude from patients.

“What do you think of the daily updates on the number of foreign workers infected?” I asked. His reply surprised me. He said that even though there are new cases reported each day, there are even more who have recovered and have gone back to work. Knowing that so many have fought through and survived the virus gave him hope and solace.

It was at the point that I thought to myself, “we will be ok”. It’s an odd epiphany. I’ve always been looking ahead, knowing in my head that the world would recover, once the vaccine is discovered and mass produced, once the economy rebounds from the Covid-19 depression.

But talking to my friend, listening to his personal journey and his quiet sacrifices gave me the confidence in my heart that thanks to him, and many others like him, we will be ok.

Healthcare workers all around the world are on the frontlines of battling Covid-19, stopping it from spreading throughout our cities and into our homes. They are putting themselves in the path of this virus in this unprecedented crisis while sacrificing their livelihoods and even their lives. Our doctors, nurses, technicians, transporters, EMTs, pharmacists and everyone who supports patient care have risen to the occasion and cared for our most vulnerable when needed.

Their dedication, commitment and courage deserve our deepest gratitude and admiration. Their service to patients in saving countless lives and making a difference to many is heroic.

My friend, Dr Soma, a frontliner, is a real hero.

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