Singaporean nurse’s US stint was cut short by COVID-19 – these folks stepped up to help

SINGAPORE (CNA) – Within Siti Zawiyah’s first week in the United States (US), when COVID-19-fuelled panic buying began, a colleague bought her bags and bags of groceries – so many that she had to make a few trips to carry them all in from her colleague’s car.

Their contents included toilet paper, a huge bottle of water, milk, rice, frozen vegetables, halal meat and spices. “I can’t give you chicken without (any spices) to cook with, right?” said her colleague, Maria Gregg.

Siti barely knew Maria, who had her own family to look after even as stores were emptied of supplies by anxious shoppers. Yet, the American insisted on helping the Singaporean, her husband and their 16-month-old son ride out the developing COVID-19 situation.

“Maria told me that she couldn’t imagine being away from her country with her child and family without receiving any help,” said Siti.

That was in early March, when Siti began her attachment with the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. The 40-year-old registered nurse with the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) was there as part of the Health Manpower Development Plan.

Singapore General Hospital nurse Siti Zawiyah, with her son Harith and colleague Maria Gregg who bought her a load of groceries during the coronavirus outbreak in New Jersey. PHOTOS: SITI ZAWIYAH
ABOVE & BELOW: Streets were emptied in New Jersey as people were told to stay home, and all non-essential businesses closed; and empty shop shelves in New Jersey after panic buying

She was supposed to spend six weeks with the New Jersey hospital’s nursing informatics team – but she was at the hospital for only five days.

On the Tuesday of the second week, as infection rates climbed nation-wide, the university hospital instructed Siti, who was considered non-essential staff, to stay home until further notice.

By week three, Siti was recalled to Singapore by the Ministry of Health – but not before experiencing how a terrible situation brought out the best in people she barely knew.

FIRST INKLINGS OF A STORM

When Siti’s family landed in New Jersey on March 7, there had been just a handful of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in the state, and anxiety over COVID-19 had not yet escalated.

“The day we got there, it was bright and sunny. People were out and about,” she said. “It was like any normal day.”

Siti’s family was welcomed to the neighbourhood with a generous bag of groceries placed outside their apartment by their new neighbour Angela.

Three days later, Siti reported for work and an orientation tour of the hospital campus as planned.

But already, there were signs that the situation was unravelling: A café that Siti’s family patronised no longer allowed customers to enter the store to place orders. Establishments stopped serving customers drinks in their personal mugs. Playgrounds were cordoned off.

On March 13, when a national emergency was declared across the US, the panic-buying began. That was when Siti’s colleague, Maria, appeared like a reassuring guardian with the groceries.

As the days passed, the family’s worries grew over the fast-deteriorating situation. A curfew was announced; schools, malls, and eventually, all non-essential businesses were closed.

By March 21, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Jersey shot past 1,000, and four days after that, it had more than tripled.

New Jersey now had the second-biggest outbreak in the US behind New York, with Governor Phil Murphy warning of a critical shortfall in hospital beds.

Meanwhile, a homebound Siti’s colleagues involved her remotely in their meetings, ensuring she continued to learn.

But then came word from Singapore. “Siti’s boss told us we should come home,” said her husband, Muhammad Fadzullah Hassan. “An official email was also sent. So we booked our ticket for March 26.”

Finally, it seemed, the family was going home. But days before their trip came news from Singapore Airlines: The flight was cancelled.

A desperate Siti sought help from the airline and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as a friend in the industry. “It looked like flights were full, but there was business class.”

Somehow, the friend managed to get them premium economy tickets – on a March 25 morning flight.

Siti was taking no chances. She wanted to reach the airport early in case there were additional health checks. “I asked Maria for help to get us there. She said ‘no problem’.

“She sent us to the airport at 5.45am for our 10.45am flight, with an impossible amount of luggage fit into her car. We’re so, so thankful for her.”

BACK HOME, MORE KINDNESS

Upon landing at Changi Airport, Siti’s family and their fellow travellers were received by immigration officers, and ushered in small groups aboard shuttle buses which took them straight to Village Hotel Sentosa.

It was where the family would have to serve their Stay Home Notice (SHN) for the next 14 days.

“After an 18-hour flight, it was nice to see local faces smiling at us,” said Siti. “The reception staff was exceptional – they even offered a stuffed toy at check-in, when they noticed I had my son Harith with me.”

During their stay, in between finding ways to keep Harith occupied, Siti was bombarded with messages from friends and family offering to deliver food and supplies to them.

“They asked if we needed anything for Harith: Was there enough milk? Diapers? We were locked in this confined space, but people were always in touch with me,” she added.

“The first few days, there were so many deliveries. They sent Harith milk and snacks, even put in little surprises like mee goreng, hot coffee, cakes.”

To avoid any physical contact, staff left deliveries and meals on stools outside each room and rang the doorbell to alert guests.

“Sometimes, we’d catch them in time to say hi. They were always so warm, and they’d tell us to hang in there.”

To thank the staff, they made a card – “we got Harith to do some colouring” – and pasted it on their door. In return, they got a handwritten note of encouragement from one of the staff.

BEING WHERE SHE’S NEEDED

With their SHN completed on April 9, the family could finally go home, where they have stayed the last few days in accordance with Singapore’s “circuit-breaker” directives.

For them, the enhanced safe distancing measures are not a new experience, after what they lived through in New Jersey.

And today, Siti will return to her job in nursing informatics at SGH, while her husband works from home with their son. Her role involves working with medical data and IT systems to support the clinical nurses – but should the need arise, Siti is well prepared to serve on the frontline. “Of course we’re concerned because we have family back home, but that’s the nature of the job.

“As a nurse, (no matter where) you are, you’ve got to be ready to be deployed to areas where you’re needed most. We need to be out there, helping,” she said.