“It was the first time I witnessed death before my very eyes,” HCA Senior Medical Social Worker Kimberly Chan recounts. “It was a reality hit for me.”
The HCA Star PALS patient, Marie*, a teenaged girl afflicted with cancer, was the first case assigned to Kimberly when she joined HCA five years ago. Journeying with the girl in the last days of her life and witnessing her passing struck a chord within Kimberly, who was new to the paediatric palliative care sector.
“It was scary for me,” Kimberly admits. “But at the same time, I saw the strength and resilience of Marie and her mother, Jenny*.”
That intimate glimpse into the family’s most vulnerable moments set the stage for an enduring friendship – it has been five years since Marie’s passing, but Kimberly is still in touch with Jenny.
While social workers undoubtedly devote much of their time, expertise and efforts to their calling, they often also glean invaluable wisdom in return. “Jenny was my first teacher in life,” Kimberly says. “She taught me the importance of living life to the fullest and also helped me understand what it means to embrace personhood.”
Despite the grief of losing her child, Jenny went on to complete her doctorate degree in memory of Marie. “The first two years after Marie’s passing were difficult for Jenny, but she kept in mind what Marie wanted for her,” Kimberly shares. “We met up recently and she mentioned that she was interested to sign up as a Medi-Minder, to make a difference in the lives of our Star PALS children and their families.”
The phrase “a life well-lived” is often associated with rich and varied experiences of joy, trials and dreams – elements that come with age. Yet, for the patients under the HCA Star PALS programme, these life experiences are a distant dream.
Kimberly (left) and HCA Senior Palliative Care Nurse Nicole Peng accompany a HCA Star PALS patient and his foster mother on a trip to Gardens by the Bay.
“Nobody expects children to die,” Kimberly shares. “There are a lot more things to make sense of when a child is facing death.”
Facing death is never easy, but paediatric palliative care entails different complexities that confront medical social workers like Kimberly, who journey with these young patients and their loved ones through the emotional turmoil.
“There are no straight answers for the difficult questions that arise,” she says. “But a lot of it is about meaning making and being with patients and their families as they make sense of the illness and situation.”
Formerly from the Child Protective Service, Kimberly was inspired to continue working with children and their families in their most natural environment. “What attracted me to Star PALS was the opportunity to truly be able to stay connected with children and families,” she explains. “It is a very different area of work – these patients are often just months, weeks or even days away from death.”
Despite the sometimes sombre nature of the work, there are plenty of beautiful moments to remember. It has been five years since HCA Star PALS patient Sharon Callista Rain, 9, passed on, but Kimberly fondly remembers the young girl’s bubbly and vivacious spirit.
Kimberly and Sharon at the latter’s home.
“Before Sharon was diagnosed with bone cancer, she was an avid dancer and singer, who loved taking part in events and competitions,” Kimberly shares.
Sharon eventually lost the ability to walk as the cancer progressed. One of her final wishes was to partake in her own music video, a wish brought to fruition with the help of volunteers and the Star PALS team. Despite the bleak prognosis, Sharon was determined to live life to the fullest, displaying immense maturity and strength in the face of the inevitable.
Reflecting on her journey thus far, Kimberly says, “I feel that we often take the little – but most important things – for granted, like our abilities to eat, play and function.”
*not their real names