Bruneian doctor in UK hails govt efforts in tackling COVID-19

Azlan Othman

Bruneian doctor and Senior Anaesthetic Registrar Dr Jun Seng Tan, who is currently in a National Health Service (NHS) speciality training programme in Nottingham, United Kingdom (UK), lauded Brunei Darussalam for managing the COVID-19 outbreak well.

“The Brunei government was quick to react and deal with the situation effectively and professionally throughout,” he said.

Dr Jun was involved in the fight against COVID-19 as an intensive care unit (ICU) doctor, during the first and the current wave of the pandemic in the UK.

He said, “The leadership shown by the Ministry of Health (MoH), especially Minister of Health Dato Seri Setia Dr Haji Mohd Isham bin Haji Jaafar, has been very commendable. I am glad that I don’t have to worry about the well-being of my family members back in Brunei.

“I have seen this disease tear apart whole families and communities, and I am grateful that it didn’t happen in Brunei.

Dr Jun added, “It’s unlikely that COVID-19 will go away anytime soon, and we are all headed for a ‘new normal’.

“We need to continue to be vigilant and do our part by wearing masks, washing our hands regularly and maintaining social distancing. Self-isolate and get tested if you are symptomatic, so that you can protect others.”

“I know that the Brunei government will continue to strengthen public health services and systems, and I hope that plans are made in advance should the worst occur. Those of us who are on the frontlines in the UK will gladly assist in sharing information and our experiences to help.

“When the vaccine is made available, I encourage everyone to get vaccinated. With more being vaccinated, the better our chances of returning to ‘normal’,” said Dr Jun.

Dr Jun, who is nearing the completion of his training, comes from the Belait District.

Bruneian doctor and Senior Anaesthetic Registrar Dr Jun Seng Tan

He took his GCE ‘O’ Levels at Perdana Wazir Secondary School and ‘A’ Levels at Sayyiddina Ali Secondary School, before studying medicine at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) and then graduating from St George’s Medical School in London in 2013. I completed my foundation training in London, before moving up North to the East Midlands (Nottingham) for my specialist training in anaesthesia,” he said.

“I spent most of 2020 working in the ICU, looking after COVID-19 patients. Many of us were moved from administering anaesthesia in operating theatres to staffing the ICU, to cope with increased demands. Currently, I am working in King’s Mill Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield. It is in an old mining town in the north of Nottinghamshire,” Dr Jun added.

“There is a lot of deprivation and lung diseases from the mining industry. These underlying health factors increase the severity of the COVID-19 infection, and we saw the impact during the first wave.

“In the second wave, things were no easier.

“There was a small rise in cases from October through to December, but we could tell that another big wave was coming.

“There were reports in the media of illegal gatherings and parties, in defiance of lockdown orders.

“Personally, I have witnessed people gathering in large numbers, in defiance of social distancing and precautions.

“I remember feeling a mix of anger and sadness. I can empathise with them; it had been difficult for everyone, and the novelty of the lockdown had long worn off.

“Society is no doubt tired, and fatigue inevitably leads to a lapse in judgement.

“By the end of December, as we had predicted, there was another serious surge in numbers and critically ill patients with the same diagnosis – COVID-19. The days following the holidays on December 25 brought about a major spike in cases throughout the country.

“In the Midlands, we saw nearly twice the number of ICU admissions for COVID-19 than the first wave, and by early January we were at crisis point.

More worryingly, I could see that we were treating patients younger and sicker than in the first wave.

“Not all was doom and gloom, however. There were a lot of positive stories, as well. No matter how hard it got, we united and kept each other going. Volunteers from other specialties also came to help in the ICU – doctors, nurses and other allied health staff. They were mostly out of their comfort zone, but were keen to do anything to help.

“I’ve had medical consultants from other specialities come in to help with nursing patients, manual handling and even just scribing in the notes. They were very conscious about how little they could do in the ICU, but wanted to contribute in any way. This was very humbling to see.

“Non-ICU trained nurses from the ward volunteered to do shifts in the ICU, as well. Many had never seen patients so critically ill before. I had to hold a debriefing for the new volunteer nurses after a particularly bad shift, to ensure that they were not traumatised and would come work with us again!

“We also had volunteers come in to help communicate with patient families. This was probably the most impactful help I saw. They could help update families on their relatives’ progress, while we were busy and also arrange video calls with them, which was the only way to see their loved ones.

“In December, we had the first round of vaccinations made available. I had my first jab before December 25. For a while, there was optimism and the vaccines have given everyone hope that there is an exit out of this pandemic.

“Around the same time, we heard increasing reports of new coronavirus variants taking hold in the South.

“It was concerning for two reasons: would the vaccine be effective against these new variants?

“And would this increase cases, especially during the holidays on December 25?

“Luckily all signs have shown that the vaccines would be effective against the new variants. Unfortunately, we did see a major increase in cases through the country. There is currently not enough data to speculate on the new variants. It is part of the life cycle of the virus to mutate, so this was not unexpected.

“Unfortunately the new variants have been more virulent and spread much faster. Social distancing, testing and contact tracing and other safety measures have not changed.

“Practically, we do not use the information on which variant our patients have; they are either positive or not. We have to abide by the rules and wait for things to settle down again.”

On a more personal level, Dr Jun said that it has been quite difficult, “My fiancée and I had to postpone our wedding, and currently there are no new plans made yet. We were supposed to be married last year, after which she would move to the UK to be with me.

“She still resides in Brunei and it will be almost a year since we last saw each other. I miss her dearly. We talk daily, but too often I am busy at work or exhausted when I get home.

“I miss my family and friends in Brunei. I have not been able to return home for a visit, as there will not be enough annual leave to spend the quarantine, and not enough doctors in ICU to cover my shifts. I look forward to return home soon, when situation allows.

“Currently we are all facing difficult times, but there is hope. I look forward to coming home in the near future, and meeting my family again in better times.”