Pillar of strength

GROWING up, Ms Tricia Chua Xue Qi always knew she wanted to be in a job where she could help others in a meaningful way. The 23-year-old’s dream came true when she joined the National University Hospital (NUH) as a medical social worker. Prior to that, Ms Chua worked as a teacher’s aide at Pathlight School after her A levels, and volunteered with pre-school children with special needs at Rainbow Centre while studying at the National University of Singapore. She has also interned at Transition Plus+ and mentored the primary school children there. But Ms Chua had her first volunteering experience a long time ago — when she was a Singapore Chinese Girls’ School student tutoring primary school children at Beyond Social Services. Her passion to serve the less privileged was developed when the then Secondary 3 student learnt that a primary school child’s birthday wish was to eat spaghetti. The simplicity of the wish made her realise that “there were worlds so different from mine”.

All taken care of

Ms Chua, a MOH Holdings (MOHH) Mid-Term Healthcare Scholarship recipient, graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Social Work in May last year and started working at NUH in July. MOHH offers the scholarship to outstanding students who are currently pursuing a relevant health science degree at a local or overseas university, or a diploma in a relevant health science discipline at a local polytechnic institute. It is awarded in the form of either a Healthcare Merit Scholarship or Healthcare Merit Award. Ms Chua received the latter. Apart from medical social work, the courses that qualify for the Mid-Term Healthcare Scholarship include diagnostic radiography, dietetics, nursing, occupational therapy, orthoptics, pharmacy, physiotherapy, podiatry, radiation therapy, respiratory therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, and speech therapy. All healthcare scholarships are centrally awarded and managed by MOHH on behalf of the Singapore public healthcare sector. Ms Chua’s scholarship covered her university fees and provided her with monthly allowances — even during her exchange programme at the University of California in Santa Cruz, United States, that lasted one semester. The scholarship comes with a four-year bond. Some take various factors — the length of the bond, allowances, whether their exchange programme will be funded, and if they will work in a hospital or in the community — into consideration. But Ms Chua’s main concern then was to practise social work after graduating — it did not really matter where.

Believing in her patients

At NUH, the medical social worker works with patients to address any social issues they may have, which is key for recovery. “My perspective towards my patients is heavily influenced by the strengths perspective and systems theory, which I learnt in school,” she says. Instead of focusing on patients’ problems, the strengths perspective in social work centres on their abilities, talents and resources. In systems theory, social workers take into consideration factors such as patients’ families, social circles, environments and economic backgrounds. This helps them to better understand their patients’ behaviour and work with them to address their issues better. Eight months into her job, Ms Chua is loving every minute of it. Her work at the hospital enables her to meet people from all walks of life. They include the homeless, rich multi-property owners, recalcitrant drug users and those who juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. She says: “I see each of my patients as individual human beings that they are, and in turn, they share with me things that they may never have told anyone else before. By journeying with them through their toughest moments and being available as emotional support, we are able to bring out their strengths and help them see that they are capable of solving their own problems, maybe with a little bit of help from our side.”

Compassion and determination

Ms Chua has come to realise that her job enables her to touch lives in a special way. She recalls a session where a grieving elderly male patient’s face lit up just talking about his late wife as he shared her photos at Ms Chua’s request. He had broken down during the previous session. She says: “I think the value in our work cannot be measured. Although it is challenging, I enjoy the spontaneity of my job. “There are days when my desk and mobile phones ring non-stop, patients arrive unexpectedly and clinic staff have requests — all at the same time. But that’s what keeps my job exciting.” Ms Chua, who destresses by practising yoga and Muay Thai, says compassion and determination are pre-requisites for social workers. “We need to empathise and connect with the people we work with. I don’t see my patients as people to be pitied, but as individuals with their own resources and capacity to cope and thrive,” she adds.