The angel in white comes full circle
Prior to her retirement, Tan Cheng Guan was an assistant nurse in the settlement, one of the very few who worked officially for the government. In those days when leprosy was rampant, she was not unlike an angel in white, who had saved numerous lives in the hospital wards. Now, once again, she is back in the ward, except this time she is the one in a hospital bed, in a place where she used to hustle and bustle around, as she has lost her husband in her old age and had become less mobile.
Tan Cheng Guan was born into a family of moderate affluence. Her parents owned a small estate in Batu Pahat, Johor. She said she knew that she had leprosy when she was in Primary 3. Whenever she played with her friends, her face would turn bright red and her friends would always mock her.
“People would laugh at me and call me a red-faced monkey,” she said. “I was very sad because I felt like I was different from the others.”
Then, it was mandatory for leprosy patients to undergo quarantine. However, Tan’s family decided to remove her from school to keep her home, while trying to cure her using traditional Chinese medicines that prescribed by her uncle, who happened to be a Chinese physician. At that time, she was only 10. Two years later, the Chinese medical treatment had not only failed to cure her but also worsened her condition. She often suffered from nerve pain and would cry and scream in pain every time she had an attack. So, her family had no choice but to send her to the leprosarium for treatment. She recalled having her brother with her all the way to the leprosarium in Tampoi, carrying her luggage and helping her register for admission.
When she reported at the leprosarium, the inmates gave her a warm welcome and eased her homesickness. During the course of her treatment, she was given injections of sulphone and painkillers. And gradually, her condition improved. After staying in Tampoi for about three years, she was transferred to the Sungai Buloh Settlement. She was already 16 by then. Despite her age, the doctor allowed her to resume studying in Primary 4 at Travers School, since she had stopped earlier at Primary 3.
Many patients had gradually got out of touch with their families after being admitted to the leprosarium. Tan Cheng Guan, on the contrary, had stayed in touch with her family all these while. Her family often sent her money and she would take a bus home occasionally to visit them too.
Back then, whenever the inmates are going on a long trip, they must hand over all their clothes and bags they’ve packed to the “checkpoint” (namely the Administration Office) for sterilisation so as to prevent transmitting the germs to the general public.
After a short stay at home, Tan Cheng Guan would then return to the settlement. She remembers that her family used to thrust a bunch of food into her arms before she leaves.
“My sisters-in-law were all very kind to me. Every time I went home, they would give me a lot of things. Canned food and whatsoever. They even let me bring along non-travel-friendly stuff like eggs, which tend to get broken on the bus. They were worried that I had nothing to eat.”
At that time, it was stipulated that patients should discontinue their education and move into the chalets from the Children Ward when they turned 18. So, Tan Cheng Guan did not have a chance to attend secondary school. After moving into a chalet, she started her first job.
As a seamstress, she was to make bed sheets, patient wear and other linens for a mere 5 dollars per month. After working for a year or so, the matron thought she had potential and encouraged her to become a nurse instead, and so she signed up and applied to become one. After a successful interview, she and one other inmate stood out among 16 candidates and became “green-band” nurses with a monthly allowance of 72 dollars.
According to Tan Cheng Guan, nurses in the settlement then were divided into three ranks – green, blue and red bands. The green band was the lowest rank while the red band signified the highest. In the early days, green, blue and red coloured bands were stitched on the sleeves of the nurse’ uniform, but they were later piped around the edge of their white caps.
She said she had to do everything, including making beds and feeding patients when she was a green-band.
There were 10 female wards in the settlement, housing about 20 patients each and operating in three shifts – from 7am to 2pm, from 2pm to 9pm, and from 9pm to 7am the next day. Meanwhile, Tan Cheng Guan took a course at the nursing training school, which was located within the settlement, and finally obtained a “red band” three years later. Thereafter, she was qualified to administer injections to patients and her allowance slowly increased to 200-odd dollars.
She recalled, while sitting in her bed, that her main job as a “red-band” was to follow the doctors on ward rounds, write reports, distribute medicines, give injections, clean and dress patients’ wounds, and so on.
“I was most afraid of handling wounds with living worms. Once, when I was removing a cotton dressing from a cancer patient’s face, a bunch of maggots fell out from the wound. I was so terrified that I almost passed out!” In the end, she had to ask for a colleague's favour to take care of the patient’s wound. That was her most unforgettable experience as a nurse.
Since leprosy patients had to be given injections during the course of treatment, giving injections was an everyday task in the hospital. Tan Cheng Guan said, there used to be two “red-band” nurses who were put in charge to only administer injections. They would visit the wards one by one with a cart to administer injections.
“Say for injections, they had two slots, 8am-12pm and 2pm-4pm. They can leave after completing six hours of work. Then, we had to administer the injections when they were not around.”
In 1974, Tan Cheng Guan ventured out of the settlement for an interview. She passed at the first attempt and officially became a public servant. With a salary of 800-odd dollars before retirement and a pension, she was considered a “high-income earner” in the settlement.
In her youth, Tan Cheng Guan was married to an Indonesian Chinese who used to sell vegetables in the settlement, and they had two sons and a daughter together. The authority mandated that all babies must be taken to the Babies’ Home at birth and be sent away after six months. So, Tan Cheng Guan’s mother took their first child into her care a few months after the baby was born. Subsequently for her second and third child, Tan Cheng Guan asked the assistant nurses at the Babies’ Home for a favour and placed her children under their care, so that she can keep her children by her side. The cost of childcare was 70 dollars per month for each child. Forty years ago, 70 dollars was a huge amount of money, she said.
Gradually as her children grew older, Tan Cheng Guan chose to be discharged from the settlement, as recovered inmates were encouraged to return to the society. She and her husband moved into a rented house nearby and took their children back into their care, while she continued to work at the hospital every day.
Now, her children have all grown up and her husband has passed away. For more than a decade, she has been staying in the ward because of joint pain resulting from a high uric acid level. It is difficult for her to get off the bed and walk. Hence, her only entertainment is the television at her bedside. When the TV is about to air a drama series, she and her wardmates would switch to the right channel on time, they’d watch with rapt attention, their eyes glued to the screen. The television truly is the greatest solace for the inmates throughout their idle time in the ward.
Narrated by Tan Cheng Guan
nterviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San