My mother, Emmie Cheung, is a true nurse who was devoted to her calling all her life. She graduated from St Albans City Hospital in Britain in 1966, and completed her midwifery training in Scotland in 1968. After that, my mother worked as a nurse in Malaysia for 27 years till her retirement in 1995.
Even after she retired, my mother continued to tend to the sick and needy. She is 74 years old now, and I continue to be in awe of her compassion and commitment to her patients.
During a holiday in Cameron Highlands some years ago, my mother got a call telling her that a friend who was battling cancer had been calling out her name.
After an uneasy night, we left the next morning to go to the friend. We went straight to the hospital and her ailing friend whispered to my mum, “Thank you Emmie, thank you, I’m going now”.
Peacefully, she took her last breath. It was a goosebump moment for me.
As a hospice nurse, Mum had sent off many patients who were her close colleagues and friends.
There is no questioning how seriously my mother took her duties, even as a young nurse.
One of her early postings was at Universiti Hospital in Petaling Jaya, Selangor where she turned away the hospital head after visiting hours. As a new nurse, she did not know who he was and told him sternly that the patients needed their rest. The hospital head acquiesced, but he mentioned the incident to the Sister-in-Charge and applauded the young nurse for upholding hospital rules.
Throughout her nursing career, my mother related many stories to us.
She says her best nursing days were when she was serving at the leprosy settlement in Sungai Buloh, Selangor, from 1976 to 1979. Back then, leprosy patients were stigmatised and isolated from society as there were fears of the disease spreading. Families would disown family members with leprosy, believing it was a curse that brought shame to their family.
Many nurses who were posted to the leprosy centre either asked for a transfer or resigned from government service. Families disapproved of their children working with leprosy patients.
But my mother felt joy for being able to care for these isolated patients. She became friends with them. For the patients, the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement had become their home. It was also where they found sanctuary from society’s discriminations.
My mother treated each patient with respect. She ate meals cooked by her patients when they invited her to their homes during festivals or special occasions. Many would turn down leprosy patients’ invitations as there was fear of being infected as leprosy is an airborne disease. Today, leprosy can be treated effectively with drug therapies, but in those days there was great fear of contracting the disease.
But my mother was not afraid because she let God lead as she served. With her trust and faith in God, my mother accepted her patients, gained their trust and nurtured her friendship with them.
All mum’s patients wanted was someone to speak to them, heal their emotional suffering and show them some love and care. After completing her duties, she’d visit their orchards and homes. They grew close to her and missed her when they didn’t see her.
The patients called my mother “Misi Payung”, the nurse with the umbrella. Mum hails from Hong Kong and she always carried an umbrella to shield her from the sun and rain, even up to today.
Even after her posting ended, my mother continued to visit her patients in Sungai Buloh. Some of the elderly inmates still recognised her. One of them was Kim Yew, but sadly, we came to know that he had passed away.
Mum truly lived her life of serving the needy. She always says that nothing made her more complete than nursing.
My mother has another fond memory of her nursing career. One evening, a busload of injured people was rushed into the emergency ward. Many had deep cuts and my mother immediately attended to them. She began to clean their wounds and volunteered to do their stitches.
The doctor was unsure of her stitch work. But overloaded with patients, the doctor reluctantly allowed her to stitch the cleaned wounds. But he watched her and was impressed with her fine stitches. During his ward round the next morning, the doctor praised her.
Mum humbly accepted the praise and moved on, but she was happy to earn the confidence of her colleagues and patients. She is also glad to have worked with prominent and reputable doctors in her nursing days.
Growing up, we read about Florence Nightingale. Being with my mother feels somewhat like being held closely by Nightingale.
Mum takes care not only of humans, but also of our pets. When our dog became bedridden and immobile, she took turns cleaning and feeding him till he passed away.
She often tells me that patience, tolerance, dedication, trust, compassion, love and empathy are some of the most important values in nursing, and these are values she lives by.
Happy International Nurses Day and Happy Mother’s Day Mum.