By Hana Chen
Before the first cases of Covid-19 reached Singapore’s shores, Mashithah Mansor and her colleagues at Changi General Hospital had already begun making preparations for the outbreak.
As a Nurse Clinician in the hospital’s Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), and Nurse Lead of the Medical Emergency Team for over 19 years, she had already worked through two other pandemics — the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and the H1N1 virus in 2009.
So when they heard about the coronavirus, they made sure that they were properly equipped to handle the then-new disease.
“The fear is still there,” Mashithah shares, “memories come flashing back of your very sick patients during the previous situations… your heart breaks, for them, for their family members, for their situation.”
Despite her past experiences, the 45-year-old hadn’t anticipated that the pandemic would last so long.
“During the first six months, I kept thinking it would end soon… but new variants kept coming!” she recalls.
Even now, nearly three years since the pandemic began, Mashithah and her other healthcare colleagues are still at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.
“I remember seeing a picture of a firefighter giving a baton to a nurse,” she shares (an artwork by Mick Ashley titled The Road Ahead on the 2019 Australian bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic), “they passed a baton of hope to the healthcare providers. It’s an honour to be seen … (and have it acknowledged) that it is a fight.”
Here to help, here to heal
Mashithah jokes that putting on her Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is like being wrapped like a popiah.
“Whenever we have an activation, or a resuscitation, we wear our PPE, our N95 mask, our cap, our gown,” she explains with a laugh, “it’s like a swimming pool, you know, inside? Especially the N95, sometimes when you open it up, it’s like ‘woah’.”
“And we wear it the whole day.”
The PPE is a double-edged sword — it protects the nurses and lessens the risk of infection but it also creates a barrier between patients and nurses.
Mashithah says that having everything concealed, including their eyes behind goggles or face shields, makes it difficult for them to show patients that they care.
“As a nurse, you’re supposed to be helping, healing, caring,” she says, “we do that, but how do you (show the patients) that ‘I’m here for you’ (when covered head to toe)?”
It wasn’t just the patients who needed care and concern.
At the beginning, there was a lack of understanding about the virus — how it spread, how infectious it was – and Mashithah and her co-workers were careful to take every precaution they could while attending to patients to the best of their abilities.
“We are also somebody’s wife, husband, mother, father, children, niece…” explains Mashithah, “we carry that same fear that anybody has, but this is the role that we chose and we can’t just walk away from that.”
Mashithah’s co-workers not only cared for patients throughout the pandemic, but also took the time to support each other.
“Everybody just stood together, worked together,” she explains, “if you aren’t in the position we are, seen the things we’ve seen … it’s difficult to understand (what we’ve been through).”
In the beginning, they lacked understanding about the Covid-19 disease — how it spread, how viral it was, and had to take every precaution they could while also attending to patients to the best of their ability.
“This is my team,” she says with quiet pride, “we’re here to help, here to heal.”
Besides her co-workers, Mashtihah’s family was another source of support.
The mother of two struggled to adapt to home-based-learning when the lockdown first kicked in, especially since the family only had one laptop at the time. Furthermore, her job as a frontline worker made it challenging for her to be around for her kids.
“I can handle the Covid part; and I can handle the family part,” Mashithah explains, “but it is overwhelming when you put the two together.”
She was grateful when people like her mother and her children’s school teachers rallied around her family, as she balanced her role as a mother and daughter, with that of her calling as a nurse.
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“Everyone was adjusting to home-based learning,” says Mashithah, but they went the extra mile to help us cope.”
Over time, the transition became easier. The now-familiar Zoom technology enabled her to connect with family overseas and set up e-playgroups for her children, while home-based learning gave her family more time together, and opportunities to play fun lockdown games — like jigsaw puzzles, board games, video games or even a “Stay-at-Home Covid Crazy Costumes” dress-up contest — with her children!
These fun-filled moments provided a source of laughter and brightness in her life, even as she was working to combat Covid, and the stigma of being on the frontlines.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Shunned on public transport, forced to move out of their homes, and struggling to cope with burnout, healthcare providers have borne the brunt of the stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In April, CNA Insider spoke with several healthcare workers, who shared that manpower concerns were a big issue.
There is no doubt that there are many heroes — healthcare providers among them — still fighting in the frontlines against Covid.
Now, even as Covid-19 restrictions are eased even further, and the rest of Singapore returns to “normal” living, Mashithah and her colleagues are still feeling the stress of working in the healthcare industry.
“You don’t want to burst the bubble because everybody is so happy,” she says, on interacting with people around her, “but you want to tell them that ‘you still need to have social responsibility, you still need to be careful!’”
As a MICU nurse, Mashithah is keenly aware that the virus has not stopped spreading, and that the situation will remain unpredictable for a while yet.
“Unless you walk the path we walk, you wouldn’t really understand the apprehensiveness that we have,” she says, adding that while she is glad to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, she is still careful as things can be unpredictable.
Now, nearly three years since the pandemic broke out, Mashithah is feeling the effects.
“I’m tired,” she explains, “not because of only work, but because everything was affected… you feel like you are being stretched.”
It’s a timely reminder that our healthcare workers are human too — and that throughout the pandemic, they’ve continued to give and contribute to us and our safety.
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For Mashithah, the important thing is that we remain considerate of one another.
“It’s not just only for healthcare providers, it’s for everybody. We just need to be a bit more considerate, a bit more kind,” she shares, “and think about the people around you — they may look okay, but you don’t know what they’re going through!”