A year into her business studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Miss Rachel Cheong, 26, realised a career in the corporate world was not for her.

“I had always wanted to pursue a career that focused on helping others, and being in the healthcare industry really appealed to me,” she says.

Firm footing

Though it was not an easy decision, she quit her studies at NUS and took up the Health Science Scholarship to pursue a Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) degree at the University of Sydney.

The scholarship has been renamed the Healthcare Merit Scholarship and is given by MOH Holdings, a holding company for Singapore’s public healthcare clusters.

She describes her four years there as “eye-opening, challenging and an all-round wonderful experience”. Immersing herself in the country’s unique culture, she enjoyed learning with and from her Australian classmates, and took the opportunity to travel around the country during term holidays and weekends.

Miss Cheong also served as president of the university’s Singapore Students’ Society, which highlighted the importance of teamwork and responsibility, and helped her hone her leadership skills.

As part of her degree requirements, she underwent several clinical placements, lasting two to seven weeks each, in Australian public healthcare facilities including pediatrics, geriatrics, hand therapy, acute and community clinics.

“I was amazed to realise that occupational therapists are needed in so many settings, such as rural districts, prisons and mental health institutions,” she says.

Caring for others

Now one-and-a-half years into her career as an occupational therapist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Miss Cheong is glad to have followed her heart.

Based in the neurology department, she works with patients in the acute wards who have been admitted for strokes, seizures and other neurological conditions, to rehabilitate their physical and cognitive functions.

To do this, she conducts functional and cognitive assessments, setting goals with the patients and their families and tailoring interventions to suit their needs.

Such interventions include intensive rehabilitation sessions, equipment prescriptions, home visits and caregiver training. She also plans for a patient’s discharge and makes recommendations for after-hospitalisation care such as moving to a community hospital setting. She is involved in the falls workgroup, which works on falls prevention and awareness.

“The most memorable part of my work is seeing patients make progress in their recovery,” Miss Cheong says.

“Whenever I see them come back to the hospital for follow-up, feel a sense of joy because they are able to continue living safely in the community after their hospital stay.”

She especially loves working with the elderly. “When we do therapy with seniors, we aren’t just helping them return to participation in their daily activities, we are also providing companionship and a listening ear, which is something a lot of them value.”

Miss Cheong recalls an elderly patient who had suffered a hip fracture. Unable to undergo surgery, she became wheelchair-bound. Her family was stressed as they now had to take care of her basic daily living activities, like showering and using the toilet.

Miss Cheong had rehabilitation sessions with the patient and worked with her caregivers to train them on how to assist her. Miss Cheong recommended modifications to their home, such as ramps and grab bars in the washroom for the patient to enter in a wheelchair and safely transfer to the toilet seat. The family and their helper became a lot more confident by the time the patient was discharged.

Several months later, she met them again during their outpatient appointment, and was pleased to learn they had been coping well. “Knowing that what I do helps patients and families manage better at home definitely keeps me going,” she adds.

While her scholarship comes with a six-year bond, Miss Cheong does not see it as a burden. “It saves me the trouble of having to find a job after graduation,” she says.

“I hope to hone my clinical, research and leadership skills, and to be a more nurturing and client-centred therapist who continuously strives to better the lives of patients in whatever ways possible.”