Serving with Heart: Interview with Prof Teo

By Carol Yuen

“The reason why I am still so committed to volunteering is because the takeaways exceed the time and effort that you give.”

Associate Professor Albert Teo, Deputy Director (Student Life) at the University Scholars Program and affectionately known only as Prof Teo, was recently awarded the distinguished Singapore Patient Advocate Award by the National Healthcare Group for his 15 years of volunteering work at the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC), where he initiated a massage programme for patients. Carol Yuen, two-time Best Attendance for Dining Hall Breakfast Award recipient and writer for the News Desk at The Cinnamon Roll caught up with Prof Teo on his volunteerism and the challenges he faces in his work.

For some background, patients in the CDC typically suffer from cancer, or other diseases arising from a poor immunity system. CDC treats these opportunities illnesses for free but does not provide antiretroviral drugs. With antiretroviral therapy, sufferers of a diminished immune system can lead normal lives but must consume antiretroviral drugs daily which, despite governmental subsidies, are prohibitively expensive. CDC typically houses lower income patients who cannot afford these drugs. While some of these patients eventually move on to nursing homes, few nursing homes accept HIV/AIDs patients.

Q: Could you tell us more about the work that you have been doing with HIV/AIDS patients?

A: To me, the thing about doing the massage is not the technique that makes a difference; rather, it is the touch that is therapeutic. Many HIV/AIDS patients are estranged from their families, so the fact that a volunteer is willing to massage their limbs – to touch them – sends a very strong signal of acceptance and of love. That in itself is a very healing process, maybe not physically but emotionally. It sends a very strong signal that there are people who still care for them and who are there to encourage them. We go down to the wards every Saturday from 2.30-5.30 p.m. It’s a mix of NUS students and alumni as well as people from all walks of life.

How did you conceptualise this idea of massaging and the effect that it would bring to HIV/AIDS patients?

It was actually purely accidental. When I first started volunteering, I was unsatisfied; I felt useless in a way since there seemed so little that I could do for the patients. The other volunteers were very chatty so they could chat up the patients, but I was introverted so I did not dare to speak. It hit me then that previously, when I was doing my PhD in the United States, I had learnt Swedish massage. That week, I asked the administrator if I could give the patients massages. Well, I got a yes and started immediately. Soon after, the other volunteers joined me in this.

How did you become interested and involved in the cause of helping HIV/AIDS patients?

When I did my PhD in University of California, Berkeley in 89-94, it was in the San Francisco Bay area. Berkeley is very liberal; I was exposed to a lot of social causes on campus. I wanted to understand communities that I had never been in contact with previously. So at that time I not only learnt massage, but I also volunteered with charitable, non-profit organisations – an AIDS organisation, a drop-in centre for homeless teenagers, and a sexual minorities organisation. It was an eye-opening experience that contrasted severely with conservative Singapore. Those experiences really challenged me to think about serving communities that are marginalised and stigmatised. Unfortunately, when I came back to Singapore in 1994 I got trapped in the system – and was pre-occupied with producing research papers and aiming for promotion and tenure. I eventually got promoted to Associate Professor in the beginning of 2001 and also received tenured then. Then, having fulfilled my personal goals, I desired a return to community work, so I signed up for the CDC training programme.

What do you think about the public perception of AIDs/HIV in Singapore compared to that in Berkeley?

I have been doing this work for 15 years but I feel that mind-sets have not really changed since 2001. To me, it’s not just doing massages and befriending the patients, but it’s also about doing advocacy work. Firstly, in classrooms and in interactions with students, I bring them on board as fellow volunteers. Secondly, even in encounters with colleagues and friends, I share with them what I do and that leads to conversations where I can raise awareness about the stigma and debunk a lot of myths about how one can contract HIV. Even when I take taxis to the CDC those are opportunities for advocacy, I will talk to the taxi drivers because many of them will ask why I am going to such a dirty place. I get questions such as “Aren’t you scared?” Others say “these people deserve it” because they are sinful. It’s these sorts of mind-sets that I’m trying to change in my own small way and it’s not easy.

What do you feel about the support that’s available for HIV/AIDS patients?

Society-wise, for many years Non-Governmental Organisations, such as Action for AIDs, have been fighting for subsidies for medication. However it was only in recent years that the government is open to people using their Medisave to pay for some of the medication. Despite this and governmental subsidies, prices of the drugs are still big issues for many.

Family-wise, some of them are estranged from their family when they reveal their HIV status; some have not even told their families about their HIV. But there are families who give immense support. I see elderly mothers who come almost daily to bring their seriously-ill sons home-cooked food. These acts of unconditional love are personally touching.

Have there been times when you have been doubtful about your volunteering work?

No, I tell all the new volunteers that we must be disciplined – because it’s easy to give excuses like “I’m very tired”, “I need to spend more time with family, with friends” and “I can use this Saturday to catch up on my work”, but once an excuse is given, it sets you up to miss future sessions and eventually you just give it up. So no matter how busy I am, I will be there every Saturday unless I’m travelling or there is some engagement that I cannot put off.

Besides supporting HIV/AIDS patients, are there other causes that you support and work on?

In CDC, we visit three other non-HIV wards and those are the step-down care wards where you see a lot of grandpas and grandmas who have dementia and have nowhere to go. We also do massages for them.

I also help out with various charitable organisations. One of them is ASKI Global, which conducts classes for Filipino domestic workers like entrepreneurship and financial management. Another organisation I’m with is Solutions to End Poverty (STEP). We work closely with a Cambodian NGO called PSE to develop intervention programmes to benefit the slum and squatter families in Phnom Penh.

Increasingly, I am helping various government agencies by sitting on committees to disburse funds. I am on committees with National Youth Council, The Singapore Tote Board, and another with SG Enable. I am also on a Ministry of Social and Family Development committee that looks at the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award.

What would you like to tell USP students about volunteering?

Sometimes, advocacy is not about trying to change one’s mind-set outright, but to just correct their misunderstandings. In the case of the taxi drivers, instead of telling them that they’re wrong, I tell them that they will not be in danger and, in an indirect manner, direct their attention to the ostracism and the stigma these patients face. Hopefully that will change the way they think.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that volunteering is about just giving time and effort but I would suggest that the reason why I am still so committed to volunteering all these years is because the takeaways exceed the time and effort that you give. I have learnt to become less judgmental. I have become more patient. I have witnessed many acts of unconditional love that have touched me in a very deep way. Lastly, because I have seen a lot of death and dying in the ward, I have been more sensitised to mortality and the frailty of life so that makes me cherish every day that I have.

The Singapore Patient Action Awards honour caregivers and volunteers who have made substantial contributions to the healthcare institution through advocacy and volunteerism. This is the first year that these awards are being given out.