The late Prof Cynthia Goh was a beacon of strength and compassion, lighting the palliative care path in not just Singapore, but also much of Asia Pacific.
HCA Nurse Educator Amy Lim fondly remembers the midnight discussions she used to have with the late Prof Cynthia Goh, on their volunteering trips overseas to train local healthcare teams.
Prof Cynthia firmly believed that teaching should always be culturally appropriate and meaningful to the learners. As an astute observer and mentor, Prof Cynthia would assess the needs of the community she and her team were working with, and tweak their approach accordingly. Hence, planned teaching modules were sometimes changed at the last minute, in order to meet the needs of the learners.
This was part of the whole-person care Prof Cynthia advocated passionately for. “She often said that palliative care is the work of the soul,” Amy shares. “Clinicians must have the willingness and commitment to listen to the psychosocial and emotional and spiritual needs of patients, in order to touch the whole spectrum of palliative care.”
Prof Cynthia’s gentle compassion was evident in the way she tried to connect with every patient. Goh Sock Cheng, HCA Assistant Director of Nursing, recalls: “Many of my patients would eagerly go for their appointments at the National Cancer Centre (where Prof Cynthia held the position of Emeritus Consultant in the Division of Supportive & Palliative Care) because they wanted to see her, as they knew she would give them her full attention and time.”
That element of human connection is especially crucial at the end of life. “Prof Cynthia often told us that patients don’t expect miracles, but they do expect you to do your best for them,” Amy says. “She would often say, ‘Every patient is a gift from God, wouldn’t you want to treat a gift from God with the best that you have?’”
It was Prof Cynthia’s steadfast conviction to uphold the dignity and comfort of the dying that spurred her to join St Joseph’s Home in 1986, as a volunteer. Together with fellow pioneer Dr Anne Merriman, the pair attended to palliative care patients at St Joseph’s Home every Friday evening.
There was very little knowledge about palliative care in Singapore then, but it was a significant step up from the dank and dingy death houses where the dying slowly withered away in pain. This was the bleak reality for the dying up until 1961, when death houses were banned by the government.
In an interview for a book published by the Singapore Hospice Council, Prof Cynthia said, “We had nothing – Anne being a geriatrician and I an internist. We used to hit the books, read articles. We rang people in London (St Christopher’s Hospice) and asked, ‘How do you control this pain?’ We really had to do it hands on. The patients were our teachers, telling us how to control their symptoms, and how to administer the drugs for their pain.”
That was the beginning of the palliative care movement, which quickly gathered momentum as new like-minded volunteers came onboard to lend their help. With all hands on deck, the group banded together and named themselves the Hospice Care Group (HCG) – known today as HCA Hospice Care, the largest home hospice provider in Singapore. HCG was then under the wing of Singapore Cancer Society.
With Dr Merriman, Prof Cynthia and Sister Geraldine (who headed the hospice ward at St Joseph’s Home) at the helm, the Hospice Care Group started making home visits to the terminally ill and introducing training for nurses and doctors who were passionate to join the cause.
In early 1989, Prof Cynthia and the rest of the leadership team at HCG decided it was time to register the group as an independent entity. On 4 December 1989, HCG was successfully registered as Hospice Care Association (HCA), a name collectively decided by the team. The organisation was officially renamed HCA Hospice Care in 2005.
Prof Cynthia became HCA’s first president, paving the way ahead for its development with her astute leadership, humility and compassion. Over the past three decades, HCA has gone on to serve countless patients and families, making an average of over 36,000 home visits every year.
Prof Cynthia may have passed on, but her legacy for palliative care will continue to endure the passage of time. “Prof Cynthia was an uncompromising yet compassionate teacher,” says Dr Chong Poh Heng, HCA’s Medical Director. “HCA will continue to build on the solid foundation she established during her time.”
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