'This is what NS is about': NSFs & NSmen join frontlines of S'pore's Covid-19 battle at Expo

The community care facility at Singapore Expo seeks to ease the burden of hospitals.

Andrew Koay | April 30, 2020, 04:10 PM

Each morning, instead of donning his usual Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) pixelated uniform, full-time national serviceman (NSF) Private Terrenjit Gil puts on medical scrubs.

Today, the 19-year-old medic is reporting for duty at Singapore Expo, where about 100 SAF medical Corp personnel are looking after 1,800 patients at the community care facility.

They are part of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) efforts to battle Covid-19 in our nation.

So far, the SAF has engaged in operations involving temperature screening, packing surgical masks, contact tracing, and calling to check on stay home notice compliance.

And since Apr. 22, the army’s medical corps — including regulars, NSFs, and operationally ready national servicemen (NSmen) — have been deployed to Expo, where they provide medical support and monitor the conditions of Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms and lower risk factors.

Practicing what they've learnt

Terrenjit may just be his first year with the military, but said working at Expo has given him the chance to experience “what National Service is about”:

“As a medic this is where I can actually practice what I’ve learnt, and actually put it to good use in a real life scenario. It’s no longer simulations.”

The SAF’s medical personnel at Expo work in two shifts at Halls 5 and 6 — a day shift lasting from 8am to 7pm and a night one that goes from 7pm to 8am.

Each day before entering the halls, they’re given roles by the head medic, said Terrenjit.

This may involve gathering the patients who need to be swabbed or checking the vitals of those who have reported stronger symptoms.

However, the majority of the patients have been experiencing milder reactions to the virus as “some of them already think that they don’t have the virus at this point,” he said.

“The patients themselves they feel that they are getting better. The mood generally is quite positive.”

Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen (L), donning personal protective equipment (PPE) with Private Terrenjit Gil. Image by MINDEF

Health concerns

Understandably, his parents expressed some concern upon learning that the 19-year-old was to work on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Their apprehension was allayed as Terrenjit, who described how the SAF’s emergency medical technician course — mandatory for all army medics — and a two-day refresher course had given him to confidence to use the personal protective equipment safely:

“I told them I had the suit, I had the googles, I had the mask and everything, they thought ‘You know what this is actually quite a good opportunity for you. Go and enjoy yourself’.”

Regarding the safety of the soldier's involved at Expo, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, said that he expected the men deployed to be concerned: "If they were not concerned, I would be worried."

Ng reminded all SAF personnel exposed to Covid-19 patient to "constantly be vigilant":

"I need you to keep yourself safe. I need you to remain free from infection. Or if you're unfortunate enough to be infected, to quickly not spread it."

He said that so far, soldiers have managed to keep healthy.

Easing the burden on hospitals

Lieutenant-Colonel (NS) (DR) Gabriel Cheong, Commanding Officer of 2nd Combat Support Hospital, currently Resident Physician at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, Emergency Department. Image by MINDEF

Working alongside Terrenjit is Lieutenant-Colonel (NS) (DR) Gabriel Cheong, a 44-year-old NSman and Commanding Officer of 2nd Combat Support Hospital, who has been deployed to Expo as part of his reservist training cycle.

Cheong saw the opportunity to help at Expo as a natural progression from his day job as a resident physician at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital’s emergency department.

“We are using our expertise to help in this fight against Covid,” he said.

“This is a whole-of-society effort and I think coming here to do this as a high-key in camp (training) is actually very useful and my men feel the same way as well.”

As a key appointment holder within his reservist unit, Cheong’s deployment has been longer than most.

He had to come in earlier to help plan for the operation, and will be staying to oversee through two batches of NSmen deployments at Expo.

Yet, Cheong said that the deployment at Expo was not an interruption to his usual work.

Rather, it had allowed him to look after more patients than he would normally be able to.

He explained that by housing the milder cases of the virus at community care facilities, hospitals would be able to attend to those who more urgently need care.

The doctor mentioned that his superiors at the hospital were aware of his involvement at Expo and were very supportive:

“We help free up so many more resources in the hospitals. It’s actually a very very good thing for the medical fraternity as whole — for the medical resources in this country as a whole — that we are able to do this.”

Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Daryl Tam, Senior Medical Staff Officer of HQMC and Commander of the Task Force at Singapore Expo. Image by MINDEF

Reiterating Cheong’s point of easing the burdens on hospitals, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Daryl Tam — the Commander of the Task Force at Singapore Expo — said that his soldiers involved were keen to do their part for the nation:

“Anybody you ask, whether it’s my NSmen, my NSFs, or my regulars, they all are just ready to do whatever it takes to make sure that the patients inside get well.”

Top image by MINDEF