Once a nurse, always a nurse
Nursing is in Leela Yap’s blood and she continues to serve others even now at the age of 78.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Leela Yap has many reasons to love nursing. It runs in her blood as her sister and mother were nurses. She also enjoys talking to people from all walks of life and helping them.
And the perks were not bad either as she later found out when she went down that path. “I like nursing very much and that is why I keep doing it today,” she shared. At the age of 78, she offers her home care services to post-natal mothers.
She shared that when she was younger, she didn’t want to continue schooling. “I was not interested in studying,” Leela revealed. She was in Methodist Girls’ School at Mount Sophia and there was a Cathay cinema nearby. “Before our teacher could say goodbye, a group of five to six of us would be down the 100 steps going to the cinema,” she laughed.
And there were a lot of English shows to watch, from Rock Hudson in “Giant” and Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” to Yul Brynner in “The King and I”. She and her friends would go to the cinema three to four times a week. She also was active in different sports – she was a runner for her school as well as a netball player, in the position of first shooter.
So in Form 3, she decided to leave school and in early 1956, she went into nursing. “Jobs were difficult to get at the time. I had two interviews – one in nursing and the other in the police mobile squad. I got the nursing confirmation by time I went for the police interview.” Once confirmed, she then had to go to study nursing.
Nursing was a career that not many people considered during the 1950s. In her batch of nurses, there were only 43 girls in the ages of 16 to 17. “Not many families wanted their children to be a nurse. It was a hard life, seven days, night duty and salary not good, and the girls had to stay in a hostel for three years till graduation,” she shared. But she didn’t mind it and was also fine that her pay was only S$90 a month. After giving the hostel where she lived S$20 to S$25 a month for the amah to clean and for food at the dining hall, she had even less, but that all didn’t matter. “Things were pretty cheap at the time and if we wanted to buy clothes, we went to High Street. There wasn’t an Orchard Road at that time!”
Even though, she was in the hostel, that didn’t mean it was all work and no play. There were lots of activities including picnics, parties and dancing. During her off-days (after working straight seven days), she would go with some of her nursing friends to Labrador Villa, a hostel near the sea where they would spend three days, having picnics and gathering with male partners.
“We really enjoyed ourselves,” said Leela. She shared that there was even a cook there and people who cleaned their rooms. There was no need to pay for the accommodations or food and they only needed to get necessary approvals from the matron.
Also, once a week, her batch of five to six nurses could get a night pass which allowed them to go out till midnight. “We would all go out together. Most of nights we [stayed out] past midnight and had to climb through windows and hide behind each other. I got caught many times and got scolded, but I still did the same thing. It was very terrible,” she laughed.
She also used to dance a lot – “I was a rock and roll champion in my younger days. I loved dancing. I was very havoc!” She even practiced at the hostel and would go dancing at a club called Westpoint in Pasir Panjang.
Though putting fun aside, she knew her end-goal. In 1959, she obtained her general nursing certificate, and followed it up with a midwifery certificate, which she got in 1961. Leela explained that during that time, it was compulsory to get both certificates.
After graduating, she was attached to clinics in the city and rural areas where she was a staff nurse.
She enjoyed the work. “I liked working in the rural areas where there were kampungs at the time such as in Sembawang, Yishun and Mandai,” she shared. Through her work, she got to improve on her Mother Tongue Tamil and Chinese as at home, English and Malay were the only spoken languages (her mother came from Selangor).
At the kampungs, she would visit the families and tend to new mothers and check to make sure both mother and child were ok. If the mother had other children, they were advised to go to the clinic for immunisation. “Sometimes, there was no running water and well water was used. The people there were mostly farmers and quite poor, hence no one paid for our services.” She would spend three days in the mornings at the kampungs, while the rest of the time was spent doing clinic work.
After 10 years in clinic work, she made the choice to go to a hospital for upgrading as she had a desire to be a nursing officer (now it is called nursing manager). Leela explained that she had to take courses at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) for one year and sit for a ward administration exam before she could apply for the promotion. She did pass the exam and got the promotion she wanted, and got transferred to Alexandra Hospital (at the time before the Government took it over, it was called the British Military Hospital). She worked there from 1973 to 1997, after which she retired at the age of 60. While in the hospital, she also kept herself active in other ways, playing netball and cycling, and even represented the hospital in some events.
Retiring & working
But even after retiring, Leela just couldn’t get away from her calling. She ended up working at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) as a phlebotomist, taking blood of patients in the wards. She did this part-time from 8am to 1pm everyday for five years before quitting to spend time at home.
However, that lasted one year and she decided to come back to do postnatal home care. At the age of 67, Leela took a one-month course at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital on postnatal home care. “When I was at home, I went out with friends, etc, but I was still bored.” Every two to three months, she would get a call for her services through a programme by SingHealth called Silver Connection, with the exception of the recent Chinese New Year when she had three cases. She gets to meet people of different cultures and nationalities and “they are grateful to my services”.
She had all praises for her clients who are often foreigners with no families around. She said she had one case where the mother-in-law was Chinese and “she said in her dialect that being an Indian, how would I be able to handle her daughter-in-law’s care”. “I then spoke to her back in Chinese telling her not to be like that and that I am a nurse and know what she wanted.” When the case was completed, she received positive comments.
Some clients even continue to stay in touch – “Two families called me back when they had their second child.” Some even call her for advice or invite her to their children’s birthday celebrations. She said, “That is why I never give up. I might be old but I have a lot of experience and most people are grateful to have these services. First-time mothers have a lot of problems with breastfeeding so I help them so they won’t get depressed.”
When Leela is not working, she is always out doing shopping and having lunches. “I don’t stay at home.” And if she is home, she does a lot of cooking, “experimenting” on different recipes from the TV. The mother of one (her daughter has followed in her mother’s footsteps and is also a nurse) and grandmother of three also organises yearly get-togethers with her batch of nurses, which currently numbers 24.
“Nursing is a good profession; you can’t do it for the money. When you put your heart into it, you have no regrets! As long as my mind is okay, I will continue working. It is good to work as you avoid getting dementia,” she said.