Longtime HCA volunteer Lim Lean Ee, 65, still recalls the first time she helped out at the HCA Day Hospice – at the now-defunct premises at 12 Jalan Tan Tock Seng – 24 years ago.
“One of the volunteers, who was accompanying a patient for an appointment at the National Skin Centre next door, had to leave for the day, so I took over and waited outside the consultation room,” Lean Ee shares.
The screams of agony she heard emanating from the room are memories she will never forget. Due to her condition, the patient was covered in boils that enveloped most of her body.
The liquid-filled blisters were fragile and burst easily – a sight Lean Ee witnessed as she spooned food gently into the patient’s mouth during lunch. “It was so painful for her, whenever the edge of the spoon touched the boils at the corner of her mouth,” Lean Ee recalls.
Food is simultaneously a basic need and one of life’s greatest enjoyments. It was a simple realisation Lean Ee truly came to comprehend after the first encounter with the patient who struggled so painfully to eat.
Over the last two decades, Lean Ee has been tirelessly preparing tasty meals for the patients on a weekly basis – first at HCA Day Hospice and now at Kang Le Day Hospice. Each meal is a sumptuous affair, consisting of at least two mains, a dessert and a fruit platter.
Lean Ee discusses the patients’ dietary needs with a staff member at HCA Kang Le Day.
For Lean Ee, it is an effort of love, beginning before 7am in the morning each week. An avid cook, she often conjures new menu ideas on the fly, focusing on the sensory enjoyment of food. “I don’t think my food is particularly healthy,” Lean Ee says candidly. “At life’s end, when the senses have been blunted by illness and treatments, it is a joy to be able to enjoy the taste, sight and smell of food.”
Lean Ee tries her best to fulfill food requests as well. “Sometimes the patients might mention cravings they’ve been having and I’ll try to integrate them into my menus,” she says.
Lean Ee puts her love for cooking to good use by whipping up a feast each week.
There is a particularly poignant memory that has stayed with Lean Ee through the years. “We had a patient who hadn’t had much appetite in weeks, but he requested for two tea leaf eggs when I brought them in,” she shares. “He ate them happily and passed on a couple of days later.”
Beauty means something different to everyone. For patients who have gone through the ravages of illness and harsh therapies, it could be a simple yearning for health and normalcy again.
It was a simple desire Lean Ee understood very well. “We used to have makeup and photography sessions for the patients,” she says. “It brought a lot of joy and meaning for them.”
“I encountered a patient whose skin was flaking off as I was applying makeup,” Lean Ee shares. “I wasn’t sure how to react initially but I decided to continue.”
“Her face lit up in a smile when she looked in the mirror later on – it was the happiest she had been in a long while.”
Growing up in a family of nurses, Lean Ee spent her childhood in the rural clinics of Malaysia, where her mother and aunts worked. The early exposure to the realities of illness, dying and death equipped Lean Ee with a precocious acceptance of the inevitable.
It became a natural calling when she saw the opening ceremony of HCA’s old premises on television, in the mid-1990s. The notion of a day hospice resonated with Lean Ee, an affinity that grew stronger over the years as she witnessed, among family and friends, how hospice care helps patients pass on with dignity and love.
“Hospice care is so important,” Lean Ee emphasises. “Apart from supporting patients, it is also about helping their loved ones come to terms with death and loss.”