It was close to 2pm on a swelteringly hot Friday afternoon. Professor Ong was spending her lunch hour at The Leo dormitory in Kaki Bukit, which houses about 4,100 migrant workers in 365 units. Each unit can accommodate up to 12 people.
The chairman of the medical board at Sengkang General Hospital (SKH) had popped over to check on her team there. She went from station to station, coaching her staff on swabbing techniques and even stopping to draw blood samples from the migrant workers herself.
After an hour, satisfied with what she had seen, she moved out of the “red zone” – the area where full personal protective equipment (PPE) is mandatory – and started the doffing (removal) process. That’s when she was approached by Alex Chua, a photographer who was also serving on the front line as a Singapore Armed Forces Lieutenant-Colonel. He had been documenting the scene at the dormitory and immortalised that moment with a snap.
Having just spent an hour outdoors under Singapore’s unforgiving sun with all her PPE layers on, Prof Ong was tired and sweaty. The veins on her face bulged from carbon dioxide retention. Deep grooves ran along her forehead, showing just how hard the face shield and hair bouffant had dug into her skin. It was a sight that all front liners would be familiar with.
Still, Prof Ong’s eyes had a twinkle in them and curved ever so slightly to indicate a smile behind her N95 mask.
“He managed to capture her magic and her smile,” observes Professor Christopher Cheng, chief executive officer at Sengkang General Hospital. He has known Prof Ong for over 30 years. Both of them had a running joke that despite the mask obscuring half their faces, they could still smile for the camera with their eyes.
That photo, uploaded later that night, quickly went viral.
He managed to capture her magic and her smile.Professor Christopher Cheng, chief executive officer at Sengkang General Hospital
The first sign of trouble
“My mum is in full scrubs. It must be bad,” read the text that Prof Ong’s 27-year-old son sent to his friends on the eve of Chinese New Year. She had rushed back to the hospital after reunion dinner. Singapore had just reported its first case the day before – a 66-year-old Chinese national who was here on holiday – and the team knew that they had to prepare for battle.
“For those of us who have been through Sars, it was like a bad nightmare coming back,” says Prof Ong. “Most young people have not seen an outbreak like that,” she adds. “To some extent, people were frightened. But as leadership, you have to assure people that things are going to be okay and that they’ll be taken care of.”
It was sometime back in late March when she noticed migrant workers coming into the hospital’s emergency department. It was a small number of patients at first, but the numbers quickly escalated. Recognising that it was crucial for the hospital to not be overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-19 cases, she got down to investigating.
“Some of them told us that they walked about 30 minutes to get here – and remember, these are people who are running a fever. That’s when we figured that they must be coming from somewhere near,” she recalls.
That Friday, she drove down to the nearby PPT Lodge 1B run by S11 and PPT Lodge 1A run by Tee Up. She was surprised by how huge the housing compounds were.
“That’s when I thought, we can’t just wait around for them to come to the hospital. We will be overwhelmed.” The S11 Dormitory alone houses 13,000 migrant workers. “So, we decided that we would go to the dorms, to see what we could do.”
The S11 Dormitory at Punggol would later become one of Singapore’s largest Covid-19 clusters, with 2,846 cases.
Subsequently, the hospital was also deployed to do swabs and serology in areas housing migrant workers, and in nursing homes.
In the post accompanying the photo, Alex expressed admiration for her leadership. “Being a leader is not just a title. It is getting your hands dirty and practising what you preach. It’s about coaching and listening, and making your people better than they were yesterday,” he noted.
This is not surprising to anyone who has worked with Prof Ong before.
“There were a lot of unknowns at the S11 Dormitory in the first few days of the outbreak. Almost every one of the workers identified with Covid-19 were unwell,” recalls Prof Cheng.
“Despite the maximum precaution of wearing full PPE, there was a lot of fear among the staff who volunteered to be at the front line. Prof Ong felt it was necessary for senior leadership to lead by example, even though some of us are in the ‘vulnerable age group’. She and the other seniors stood shoulder to shoulder with our younger staff, doing swabs and making sure that everything was safe and well-organised,” he adds.
When asked about her viral photo, Prof Ong’s reply is matter of fact: They needed more help on the ground, and she was an extra pair of hands.
“I went down because we needed more people to be able to perform swabs. So I assumed a supervisory and teaching role, modifying the techniques so it’s more comfortable for the patient,” says Prof Ong, who is also a senior consultant at SKH’s Department of Anaesthesiology.
Inspiring young medical workers
When the conversation turns to teaching, Prof Ong speaks passionately. She’s also a clinical associate professor at the National University of Singapore and Duke-NUS.
“I always feel that the next generation will be the ones taking care of us. By that time, I cannot be the one jumping out of bed to say, ‘No! Not like that!’,” she says with a laugh. “So you’d better teach them well and pass on what you know.”
Prof Ong’s accolades paint a picture of someone who excels at everything she does. She was the top A-level student in her year, as well as the most outstanding candidate in the final exam for her Master of Medicine. Throughout her career, she has been voted best mentor and given nods for her excellence as a doctor. She was the team lead for two separations of craniopagus twins (conjoined twins fused at the cranium), in 2001 and 2003.
“When I was much younger, when I was training, we were always focused on sending people for courses to improve their deficiencies. At some stage in my life, I realised that you can try and improve on your deficiencies, but you will never excel that way. This is why I believe it’s important to mentor people: All of us have our gifts and inclinations, and you will only excel in the areas that you are gifted in. How do you make a person realise that this is what they are good at, and maximise that?” she muses.
For Prof Ong, most of her mentoring happen informally, and she merely hopes to be a mirror for her juniors, so that they can see the areas where they can grow.
Closer to home, Prof Ong has also inspired her own son Cpt (Dr)(NS) Yii Zheng-Wei, who completed his national service in June as a medical officer. He extended his service after seeing how tirelessly his parents had been working. Prof Ong’s husband also works in medicine as a family physician.
Dr Yii credits her for influencing the way he works and leads: “Mum has always emphasised that we should never make plans reactionarily, and to ask where the source of the problem is, rather than simply treating its expressions.”
It is easy to be intimidated by Prof Ong’s long list of achievements, but Dr Yii echoes a sentiment shared by many: “She can see the good in most situations and people, and can find humour in the smallest things. She’s approachable, and always has words of wisdom for our problems, and even our successes.”