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Driven by Hope
30 April 2020

In view of World Social Work Day, which falls on the third Tuesday of March every year, HCA Star PALS Medical Social Worker Desmond Tan (above, far left) gives us a glimpse into his career switch and an impactful experience.

By Ruth Chua, HCA Community Relations

“…I will just keep on fighting, make more works of art and leave a legacy,” said late Star PALS patient Muhammad Khairul Ikwan, in an interview with The Straits Times in 2016. He was battling Stage 4 colorectal cancer and his final wish was to have a personal art exhibition featuring 87 of his artworks.

The fulfilment of this wish landed in the novice hands of Desmond Tan, who had just begun to learn the ropes of working as a Medical Social Worker in HCA’s Star PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) programme.

Coincidentally, the task was reminiscent of Desmond’s previous job as a Graphic Designer.

Skills from his past profession proved useful, as he could support the event’s publicity. Together, Khairul and Desmond designed the collaterals and promotional materials for the art exhibition.

A promotional design by Desmond, with Khairul’s inputs. This was used as a thumbnail image in one of the promotional videos for Khairul’s art exhibition, H.O.P.E.

However, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding its delivery and completion. It was undoubtedly a race against time.

“Khairul wasn’t sure that his wish to hold a personal art exhibition could be fulfilled, as it was quite a huge undertaking and his health was failing,” Desmond says.

Additionally, it had been difficult to secure a venue for the exhibition due to the short timeline.  

Bringing Wishes to Fruition

Despite these obstacles, Desmond remained determined to overcome them. He sincerely wanted Khairul to see his wish come true, before his impending passing. He was also motivated by Khairul’s devotion to the arts.

“Khairul was very dedicated to his craft, to what he’s doing,” remarks Desmond. “He was someone with a lot of hopes and dreams.”

Together with the Star PALS team, he strove to combat the challenges. This included seeking help from the teachers at Khairul’s former school, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), to provide a space for the event.

Eventually, their efforts bore fruit. Khairul was able to see through the delivery of his art exhibition, at one of NAFA’s art exhibition halls. Aptly named H.O.P.E, it sought to express Khairul’s unwavering determination to battle cancer.

Khairul delivered a speech at H.O.P.E, his first and final art exhibition. The poster featured in the background was jointly designed by Desmond and Khairul.

To Desmond, this was an eye-opener.

“It allowed this young aspiring artist to fulfill his personal dream and to leave a legacy for the rest of us,” Desmond says. “It showed me the possibilities of our work and opened my eyes to the kind of projects that we can do for our patients.”

Desmond (far left) with the Star PALS team and Khairul (centre) at the H.O.P.E art exhibition.

On hindsight, these experiences have helped Desmond to recognise that his career switch was a wise decision.

At that time, he had been feeling stagnant in his previous career. He wanted something that would provide him with more exposure to new skills and experiences.

Furthermore, he wanted to step out of his comfort zone and decided to seek a profession that would help him contribute to society. By a stroke of serendipity, he happened to hear about the government’s push for more professionals to join the social work industry several weeks later.

Desmond immediately applied for the Professional Conversion Programme managed by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS). Despite having no background experience, it felt like the right move for him.

Switching Paths

During the transition, Desmond had to adapt. He went from having some interaction with clients, to having to connect frequently with people.

“Previously, I just worked on designing. I only had to communicate with them to hear their feedback on the design,” Desmond shares. “But as a social worker, I had to reach out more to people. There’s a lot more social interaction going on.”

In his three years as a Medical Social Worker, Desmond has definitely gleaned valuable insights in the field of paediatric palliative care.

“Our work is focused on helping the patient and family live well, creating possibilities and identifying what is important to them, as an individual and a family unit,” Desmond says. “It is not about ‘giving up’.”

“This is important because that is what life is about, in my view. We can raise awareness by simply talking and sharing about it. People don’t know what they don’t know.”