Humans of KWSH
My childhood at KWSH: an interview with Shirley Cheah Wong Chui Leng
Shirley (born in 1969) is a passionate lecturer, facilitator and instructor for programmes related to health, fitness, and sports. After pursuing a degree in Sports Science, Shirley has dedicated more than 3 decades to health promotion efforts in Asia. Her childhood spent in the hospital grounds speaking to patients has shaped her interest in working with the elderly.
KWSH: What did your grandfather [Mr Lum Chee] work as in KWSH? Could you describe your family?
Shirley: My grandfather worked as a nurse between 1960s and early 1980s. He was born in 1924. My mother was adopted by my grandfather as my grandparents did not have any children. When I was in kindergarten (aged 4), I would always come to KWSH. My grandfather would be working, and I would be running around and talking to the seniors staying here.
KWSH: What were your grandfather’s daily duties as a nurse?
Shirley: He moved around the ward and sent food to the patients. I can’t remember if there were any medications given. Because we were children, we would get excited whenever we saw food. I would go around and talk to the patients. We were not allowed to serve the food, but we could talk to the patients. The patients were quite happy to see children running around because their own children didn’t come and see them. When we run around and talk to them, they are quite happy also.
KWSH: Who were some of the people that you see at KWSH?
Shirley: Back then, there were many seniors and some of them had medical conditions. When I ran around, I saw that some of their legs were very ‘black’. At that time, I did not know what that was. I kept asking my grandfather, “What is that… why are their legs so black?”. When I grew up, I realized that it was diabetes. Some of them couldn’t go for surgery immediately as they had to wait for their family to sign the consent form in order to get an amputation.
The seniors staying at KWSH were mostly poor. Some were so poor that their own children didn’t visit them. I’m not sure, but the children might be busy. Some patients were so poor that they didn’t even have money for a coffin. My grandfather and his colleagues would buy some wooden board and nailed them together to make into a coffin.
KWSH: How was the place like?
Shirley: I remember there was a pond with a lot of tortoise in there. I used to go there and look at the tortoise. There was another building where the nurses stay in. [In the 1970s], KWSH just had simple buildings and there were a lot of beds in the wards. It was an entire stretch of beds on the left and right. I remember they used to use the metal beds with the hole at the middle. Some of the patients could not go to the toilet and they peed and pooed using that. At the bottom, there was a “tam pui” (Chinese potty). I used to squat there and watch things that are dropping down. I guess, at that time, manpower was lacking so they had to design something like that to make create convenience for the patients.
A pond within KWSH. In 2014, after the Hospital embarked on its redevelopment project, the pond was also demolished.
KWSH: Do you remember what food they used to serve at the ward?
Shirley: There was a lot of liquid type of soft food. I only remember seeing porridge and everything all grinded into soft food. At the ward that I went too, most of them were too old to bite solid food and didn’t move that much.
KWSH: Did your grandfather ever talk about the challenges that he faced at work?
Shirley: He never had any complains. That time, life was very tough in Singapore. He was born in 1924, which means he went through World War 2. We were quite poor and lived in a rented flat. Wherever there was a need for a worker in the hospital, my grandfather would go and work. I don’t know how he ended up working permanently at KWSH until his retirement. My grandfather was a compassionate person, so he probably stayed so long just to serve the people.
KWSH: What were your feelings coming here as a child?
Shirley: I don’t remember I was scared or frightened by what I saw. I only felt it was quite fun. First time I saw a corpse, I was like, what’s that, why is it not moving. That’s all. After a while you would get used to it.
KWSH: How does this childhood experience shape you?
Shirley: I was in healthcare all the time. This is my first job until now. After my Sport Science programme, I went into doing everything related to health and fitness and with the Health Promotion Board. But the biggest project that I have done are usually related to chronic diseases and senior population. Some of the things that I do include teaching seniors how to alter their lifestyles physically, about grieve and loss, and formation of relationships (especially with the younger generation).
I was at KWS Care Centre @ St George for the Senior Health Core (SHC) talk in 2019. I was so emotional that I wanted to cry. Even now, when I come here [to KWSH], I still feel that way. It just gives me a lot of flashback of the past. A lot of memories, both the good ones and the bad ones. I just feel that the seniors are very pitiful. I just feel that no matter how busy one is, one needs to have that little time to go say hi to their parents who are staying in the hospital, that’s how I feel.
At that time, I was there early for the SHC talk and chit-chat with some of the seniors. The seniors still recall what happened to the hospital. Many of them said that the nurses were very nice and take really good care of everyone. They also recall that at that time, most of the hospitals might not take them as they are poor. KWSH is the only hospital that would willingly open the door and let these people to come even though they have no money to pay at that time. So, even now, when I talk to the seniors, they still remember that this is the hospital that is willing to help the poor. When KWSH asks for a donation, many people would donate. The older generation still remembers what KWSH has done.
Humans of KWSH features individuals with personal memories of the hospital. It recognizes that people of different walks of life have contributed to and benefited from others’ acts of kindness. These stories celebrate and commemorate the spirit of mutual help in Singapore. Through this series, we hope to inspire the future generations to uphold the selfless spirit of charity demonstrated by our forefathers.