By Qistina Hatta

Being a healthcare worker is never easy, even more so during a global pandemic.

But that didn’t stop 27-year-old Esther Koh from deciding on becoming a nurse.

In May 2020, when Singapore and the rest of the world were coming to grips with Covid-19, and healthcare workers were being stretched to keep us safe, she took the plunge to take up the challenge.

And it was the result of a simple conversation that she had with her dad.

She was in the car talking about career choices with her father when she suddenly asked him what he thought about nursing.

“It suits you,” he replied.

Portraits of the Pandemic: Student nurse says she fears burnout but is inspired by resilience of HCWs
Esther, with her friend and fellow nursing student Stacy Lee (left). Image source: Qistina Hatta

At that time, Esther was working as a freelance cycling coach. She hurriedly applied for a degree in nursing just five days before the deadline. It seemed like an impulsive decision to some but it “felt right” to Esther.

Now she is a Year 2 undergraduate at the National University of Singapore pursuing a three-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

While she hasn’t fully experienced the pressures of a healthcare worker, she has been attached to Jurong Community Hospital, Raffles Hospital, Kadang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) and the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for coursework and has seen some of the stresses that nurses face.

But instead of being discouraged, this has made her even more determined to help people in need.

“Nursing has become my calling,” says Esther.

Training to be a nurse during Covid

Training to be a nurse during Covid
Esther (far right) in class. Image source: Qistina Hatta

But being a student nurse during a pandemic has its own challenges. Esther had to spend most of her time on Zoom classes — she only went back to campus once a month for clinical simulations, perhaps only three or four times a semester during the circuit breaker at the peak of the pandemic.

That made her treasure those moments when she was finally back on campus, being able to stand next to her lab buddies.

This is because as part of their training, students often have to roleplay, taking turns as a staff nurse, assistant nurse, or even a parent or a patient.

During those in-person sessions, Esther and her fellow student nurses would practise interactions with different kinds of patients, as well as ways of treating them. Some of her classmates even brought bandages home to practise dressing wounds!

Behind the scenes shooting footage of Esther in school.
Behind the scenes shooting footage of Esther in school. Image source: Qistina Hatta

With the pandemic came new ways of learning. Classes used new multimedia simulations including virtual reality lessons. Esther was part of the pioneer batch of students who got to experience a simulated operating theatre using headsets, goggles and controllers to assist doctors and surgeons in wound dressing, passing instruments and assessing patients.

When she did her attachment at hospitals like Jurong Community Hospital, Esther had firsthand experience assisting nurses in the different sections.

As a student nurse, Esther says she finds it a privilege to assist patients and have their loved ones entrust them to her care.

Two years in, Esther has had no regrets studying to become a nurse.

“I took a leap of faith and just applied,” she says. “And I don’t regret taking the opportunity at all”

One thing Esther is very grateful for is the optimism of her lecturers. Through the pandemic, they are kept looking forward despite having to deal with the constant changes and challenges, a necessary step to continue training nurses in the new normal.

Challenges

Challenges
Esther (far left) roleplaying with classmates Issey Abella and lecturer Lo Chue Har. Image source: Qistina Hatta

But despite the efforts of the teaching department to help students adapt, online classes have been difficult for many students.

It’s not just having to deal with the distractions of home-based learning, but missing opportunities to practise necessary hand-on skills — it is hard to substitute actual on-the-job training such as finding a patient’s vein for an injection or assessing a patient’s wellbeing.

Learning physical skills online was a challenge, but a bigger loss was missing out on the social aspect of school.

Esther says she missed spending time with her friends in school. Getting to know her new classmates in person would have made school life more exciting, she says.

Zoom fatigue also caused feelings of unproductivity and restlessnessit doesn’t just affect  students like Esther but also adults who work from home.

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But the pandemic is no excuse.

Esther says: “It is up to us to make the most of the situation.”

Shooting Esther at home.
Shooting Esther at home. Image source: Qistina Hatta

For her next clinical attachment, the student nurse hopes to be able to do a stint at the ER to  firsthand experience the urgency of the emergency room.

As for being exposed to Covid-19, Esther is realistic. She says, matter-of-factly, that as nurses, they cannot expect not to be exposed to the virus.

To combat that, she stresses the importance of hand hygiene and safety precautions — washing hands before and after procedures, before touching a patient and after finishing an examination.

Esther says that some of her friends used their school breaks to help out in hospitals and at times have had to work long hours —  consecutive day and night shifts.

The reality in a pandemic is that nurses often work past their limits due to the increase in patients.

Esther’s biggest fear is facing burnout. Seeing her friends burnt out makes worry for her physical and mental health, but she is still willing to test her resilience because she believes this is her way of giving back and supporting other nurses.

“There has been a lot of news about the number of nurses who have resigned and many nurses who have faced burnout. So I do have fears, if I were to enter the profession,” says Esther.

“But I tell myself that I would enter this profession with a positive attitude and take it as a way to build my resilience.”

How to be supportive?

Image source: Qistina Hatta
Image source: Qistina Hatta

If you want to support nurses, Esther says, refrain from visiting the Accident & Emergency (A&E) department if you are experiencing mild symptoms of Covid.

This is to prevent other patients with more dire emergencies from being delayed in getting the help they need.

“Visit a family doctor or your nearest general practitioner if you experience symptoms that can be treated at a clinic,” she says.

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Most importantly, Esther says: Be kind to nurses.

Nurses have been ostracised for being healthcare workers, unfairly accused of carrying the virus in neighbourhoods or households and public transport — they don’t.

She says: “Be kind and mindful of what you say about nurses, even online. Show them some appreciation. Just a simple “thank you” goes a long way!”

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