Growing up, JJ Cai Junjie shared a close relationship with his grandmother who suffered from diabetes.
“I grew up seeing my grandmother receiving insulin jabs with my mum’s help,” says Junjie. “She needed to have one jab every morning before she could go about her daily chores.”
Later on, his grandmother was struck by gangrene and her toes turned black.
After he completed his A-Level examinations, Junjie applied successfully to study nursing at the National University of Singapore (NUS). But while he was still in the midst of completing his National Service, his grandmother passed away from infections to both her legs.
“When I became a nursing student, it dawned on me that I could have done more if I had the knowledge then to care for my grandmother,” he says, his voice carrying a tinge of regret.
These days, Junjie is much better equipped to take care of the elderly - many of whom are among his patients at the Ng Teng Fong General Hospital. He now works as a senior staff nurse there after graduating from the NUS Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies (NUS Nursing).
The 29-year-old is also on the fast track - in the four years since he graduated, he has written a book, earned a post-graduate certification, and is currently specialising in wound, ostomy and continence care, a role usually given to nurses with at least seven years of experience.
Clinical Group Simulation Lab Session.
Experience is crucial in the role because it requires someone who is able to deal with patients who are struggling with lifestyle changes. Most of the patients that require an ostomy have colorectal cancer - the most common cancer in Singapore among men and second most common among women - and their guts need to be diverted out because part of the colon have been cut away.
Some of the patients may then lack the confidence to step out in public because they need to carry around a pouch that contains the waste.
When the position opened up at the hospital, Junjie leapt at the chance.
“In the beginning, the patients face a lot of struggle. This is what attracted me to this area because I see that there is this huge need which is not met.”
“You also need some level of competence, too, because you are basically working alone. Without the ability, there’s a chance that doctors or nurses from other departments won’t trust your opinions.”
As NUS Nursing is a part of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, there were modules that required students from nursing and medicine to work together, facilitating interaction and professional discussions.
Outside of the classroom setting, budding nurses and doctors had opportunities to participate in community involvement programmes such as health screenings in Chinatown, or overseas screenings in Serdang, Indonesia, together. And at the inter-faculty games that Junjie joined, he happened to be the only nurse among doctors in the badminton team.
Some of the doctors he befriended at school now share the same workplace as him, so it did not take long for them to break the ice.
“The community involvement programmes taught us how to really work with doctors. And because we know each other quite well, we can work together more efficiently,” explains Junjie.
Fundraising through collection of recyclable items for Medicine-Nursing Overseas CIP (Power-up Serdang) 2012.
With an NUS nursing degree, Junjie feels that the depth of knowledge gleaned through his studies has served as an important foundation for him at work today. Referring to the rigour of his course, he observes, “Having a degree programme for nursing helps the profession a lot because we are forced to think and function at a higher level.”
“Some people still see nurses as just assistants to doctors. But people go to nurses for real advice, and we should be liable for what we tell our patients.”
In fact, it was this belief in his profession that prompted him to write a book about his experience while transitioning from being a nursing student to becoming a full-fledged nurse.
Using what he learned during his days at NUS, as well as the hands-on experience he had gained at work, Junjie spent a few months writing the book with his juniors at school in mind.
“I saw that the system can be tough to navigate for someone new to the profession... So I hope that the book can equip my juniors with essential practical knowledge that helps them to be more effective nurses.”
He offers this piece of advice: “As a good nurse, I think you need to be able to pull resources and people together, and identify the problem quickly. The eye cannot see what the mind doesn't know. So if you don't know, you can't see the problem at all.”
Since graduating in 2015, Junjie has written a book aimed at helping his juniors, earned a post-graduate certification and now specialises in wound, ostomy and continence care.
Junjie says that as someone who is always “in pursuit of the meaning of life”, working as a nurse has been perfect as it’s a profession that requires a personal touch and a caring nature.
He recalls a patient who had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that ruptured, but refused an operation and died in his ward a few hours later.
“I reflected heavily about it, on why he didn't want to do the operation. I found out that he was destitute and he probably made the decision (to die) because he didn't want to live alone,” Junjie says solemnly.
The difficult experience also opened his eyes to the living realities of the destitute in Singapore - a community whose existence he hadn’t been aware of previously. Through his work, he finds that he is constantly learning about the world around him and gaining new perspectives.
His journey as a nurse has been life-changing in more ways than one. With each day, he sees himself growing as a person too.
“Being a nurse has definitely made me more mature. It has helped me to become a better son, and to better understand the elderly, the frail and their needs.”
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