I was honoured to speak at The International Film and Peace Festival (2020) on mental wellbeing in September. In addition to sharing my personal story and blueprint for optimal wellbeing, I shared insights and top tips from interviews with global experts.
My interview with Dr Doreen Ang (COVID medical lead in Singapore) was particularly rich and poignant. Doreen shared with me, in a very raw way, how she was handling life’s extreme challenges. Her story and wisdom can do much to inspire and guide us, as we brace ourselves to face further challenges that lie ahead.
I first met Doreen in January 2020. Doreen is a family doctor in Singapore. She also serves as a mission doctor, often embarking on challenging expeditions abroad, providing medical care to patients in countries with poor healthcare systems and working in tough conditions. At the time we met, Doreen’s husband had undergone Stage 4 cancer treatment.
On 12 March, Doreen’s husband, Ying Chang, passed. He was 50. Doreen and her two boys compiled a beautiful, moving short video to honour his life. The video bears testimony to a life of happiness and love, of precious moments spent with family and friends, joyful experiences cycling through beautiful landscapes, delighting in the carefree, simple moments in life.
Doreen had turned down assignments to spend with Ying Chang. She sat down to reflect with her sons on what she would do with the time she now had on her hands. When she went to the front line, she turned out to be the only one with experience as a mission doctor and, with precious time available to help, this meant that she was the sole and obvious choice to lead the COVID medical team.
However, her new role would bring some risks and require substantial adjustments to an already disrupted family life. Her two boys considered the situation and wholeheartedly approved of their mother taking on this critical role. They offered to take on household duties, shopping, cooking and supporting each other whilst she embarked on this new and critical mission.
When I interviewed Doreen in August, she was working a 7-day week in the migrant workers’ dormitories, where the pandemic was rife. She recounted the daily challenges that she and her medical team face.
Q: What has it been like to lead this mission?
A: I’ve been going to the dormitories where the migrant construction workers are working. We have a very bad COVID situation over there. The dormitory that I go to is more than 80% COVID positive. We have 25,000 workers there. And I think at least 20,000 were infected.
I run the medical post and do whatever a family doctor like me can do for them, provide them with medical help.
Q: What are the particular challenges you and your team face?
A: We wear the full PPE, we work outdoors, it’s very hot. We perspire, we get really drenched and sweat. The patients come by the hundreds and, at the end of the day, I am really drenched in perspiration and really exhausted. It feels as if I’ve run a marathon every day.
During the time we’re working, we have to make sure our N95 is very tight. We don’t pause. We don’t stop to drink. We get very dehydrated. We don’t stop to go to the toilet. Even if our noses were itching, we can’t even scratch our nose…
There are just so many of them, we just have to just keep going.
Q: How do you keep going in such challenging conditions?
I think that the dharma practice is the main thing that’s helping me.
(“Dharma” refers to “the nature of reality” as taught in Buddhist and Indian philosophy).
Our life is a continuum: all these are like waves at the surface of the ocean. Sometimes, you get turbulent waves, sometimes you get peaceful times. This is a time when the surface of the ocean is experiencing a thunderstorm.
And this too will pass.
Focus on the present
When I’m faced with workers, hundreds of workers, thousands of them, I just see each and every one of them one at a time. And I help one worker at a time. That’s how I do it.
I don’t think too hard. I don’t worry too much. I just help one person at a time with whatever I can, in the situation that I’m in.
I don’t worry and fret about the entire pandemic as a big world issue. I just do my part as a single doctor attending to a single patient at that very present moment.
Q: What advice would you give to the rest of the world right now?
Focus on the present
Whatever happens to me or anyone, we cannot change the past. But we just focus on the present and do whatever we can.
There’s no point worrying, thinking and imagining the worst case scenario.
Just deal with your current problem right in front of your face and that’s it. Do whatever you can and not to worry about things that are not within your control.
Change our perspective
If you look at history as a whole, there were past pandemics, diseases, wars, famines, earthquakes…lots of disaster. All of this chaos and suffering will keep coming, in one form or another, just in a different façade.
Even if it’s massive death and suffering, we can’t change the external. We have to just find peace within ourselves. And let it be.
Understand that nothing is permanent, everything is impermanent. Just ease into the moment, relax into the situation with a certain amount of acceptance, not clinging on to too much.
If you cannot change the external, you change the internal.
You change the perspective, you change how you see the thing.
Set our destination further
We have to focus and set our destination further.
As long as you ride the waves and help everyone with the situation, everything will become something that has happened in the past.
Q: How did you set your destination further?
I felt that this period was something that I was meant to do, to help the world. With my husband so-called well taken care of in the heavens, I can focus and do what I’m meant to do as a front line warrior.