Volunteering was never a predominant feature for a large part of my life. I was, however, generous in giving. I would donate to charities, tithe to the church, get a dopamine hit and then revert once again to a life of 16-hour workdays.
That all changed in early 2019 when I experienced the worst heartbreak in my life.
I deployed every self-care modality I had in my toolkit to heal but nothing seemed to work. For months on end, I experienced anxiety, depression and was in a lot of physical, mental and psychological pain.
Out of desperation, I turned to volunteering. I thought that there would be people out there who have it worse, and to take my mind off my own suffering, I could help them instead.
I started volunteering for many causes such as helping in soup kitchens at 4am, cleaning up beaches and spreading cheer at migrant worker dorms. Immersing myself in these activities allowed me to connect with the vulnerable in our society, and I felt a sense of goodwill for being able to give back to the needy.
However, after six months of volunteering, I didn’t experience any significant transformation in my mindset, and the symptoms of depression, anxiety and grief were still very much present in my life. Undeterred, I continued to search for a cause that I could commit to and support.
In November 2019, I came across a volunteer carer programme at a local hospice run by a Catholic charity. I immediately enrolled and went through training. There were different volunteer tracks available, such as van escorts, day care therapy, wheelchair assistance, and ward care. I lived my life based on the mentality of giving my best in whatever I do; thus I opted for ward care as it required the most hours of training.
On the first day of ward duty, I accompanied a senior volunteer and a staff nurse for four hours as part of my training. During my shift, I witnessed a wide range of human emotion including grief, confusion, rage, acceptance and joy. For the first time in a long time, I felt the patients’ emotions take precedence over my own as I followed the nurse on her rounds.
First, I saw an elderly female patient who was bedridden and in need of teeth cleaning. The nurse asked me to get the oral sponge swab ready. I prepared the swab, wetted the tip of the sponge and passed it to the nurse.
“I’m going to bite you!” She shrieked at the nurse.
“People clean your teeth and you want to bite? Come, show your teeth, please,” the nurse responded. The patient grimaced, but co-operated. “Yes, very good… just a little bit more, yes… OK, all clean now, dear,” the nurse said soothingly.
We went into the next ward and a strong smell of faeces permeated the air. An elderly male patient was sitting up in his bed, with a dazed, catatonic look in his eyes and said quietly, “I pooped my pants.”
He paused and repeated what he said again.
“I’ll let the nurse know. Please hold on sir,” I said, and promptly rushed to get a male nurse to assist with cleaning and diaper changing.
“Girl, over here, please,” another nurse said, gesturing to me as I emerged from the ward. “Help me clean this patient.”
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The patient was a large, elderly man with terminal cancer. He was bedridden and had a bad case of bedsores. It took two of us to turn him over to help clean his body and put paraffin gauze on some of his wounds, as well as change his diaper, hospital gown and bed sheets. I dashed back and forth from the patient’s bed to the biohazard bins to toss in dirty linen sheets and to the cupboards to get fresh sheets, gowns and other medical supplies.
The patient’s wife slept through the entire cleaning process, and thanked us when she woke up.
I stepped out of the ward, and was asked to provide wheelchair assistance to a youthful-looking woman who looked to be about my age. We chatted briefly and she revealed that she had multiple tumors growing in her brain. Chemotherapy had shrunk her frame and caused most of her hair to fall out.
There was however, something peaceful about being in her presence. She had accepted her diagnosis and was very gracious even as I accidentally bumped her wheelchair against the lift doors. I wheeled her out into the hospice gardens.
“What a beautiful day,” she said softly, as she admired the plants around her. I will never forget the way she inhaled the fresh air, and closed her eyes as the cool breeze brushed over both our faces.
I felt the same breeze as she did, but before that day, it was just a physical experience for me; a light wind to cool me down. It’s hard to explain but at that very moment, I experienced an epiphany. I went through an experiential understanding that transformed the way I viewed my own mortality and life experiences.
It is difficult to describe experiential understanding, as it is unique to the individual. That moment with the woman who was facing her mortality with such grace was a catalyst that transformed my mindset and behaviour.
All my life, I have been constantly striving to project a certain image of success for external validation, ingrained from childhood conditioning. I repressed negative emotions to achieve peak performance at work. My work involved scaling startups, therefore, I had to be high-functioning in most of my working life. This was a constant state of being. I equated vulnerability with weakness and that bled into my romantic relationships.
In the months following my breakup, I lived in a haze of horrible pain and torment. I realised I needed to course correct as that was no way to live my life. It was at rock bottom that I realised that I’ve never unlocked empathy and compassion for myself. I realised that love, empathy and compassion are my values. The moments I reacted out of fear, self-preservation, and invulnerability meant that I was out of alignment with who I was.
Volunteering at a hospice unlocked those values and I could finally experience and demonstrate them through my actions. I learnt how to live my values of love, empathy and compassion through a simple act of kindness: pushing the wheelchair of a brave young woman ready to face death, as we enjoyed the cool breeze and nature that surrounded us on that beautiful day.
I am so grateful to this young woman who taught me how to live.
Sending my love and light to all of you. May we continue to do the work on ourselves, to experience real peace, love and happiness.
Co-founder of Ministry for Good, a non-profit startup to scale technology for good.