By EVELINE GAN
SINGAPORE – She started out as a junior nurse in Malaysia, earning just RM350 (about S$116) a month. Today, Ms Wong Ngee Lan is proof that a nursing career can be rewarding and varied.
Not only does she manage three private ambulatory surgical centres in Singapore – Novena Surgery Centre, Aptus Surgery Centre and Novaptus Surgery Centre – Ms Wong, 66, is a shareholder of the latter two, which she designed from scratch.
Both Aptus and Novaptus Surgery Centres are multi-million-dollar undertakings, each with four state-of-the-art operating theatres and other facilities. The operating theatres have cableless pendant systems that allow surgeons and medical staff to operate without being obstructed by stray wiring. Not every operating room in Singapore has this, Ms Wong told TODAY.
Novaptus Surgery Centre, which opened at Camden Medical Centre this year, is Ms Wong’s latest project. Like Aptus Surgery Centre, Ms Wong designed the centre and its standard operating procedures, keeping in mind the needs of patients and doctors who utilise it.
Her vast experience includes setting up and running the operating theatre, day surgery and endoscopy centre at Raffles Hospital, where she worked for a decade. She honed her keen eye for design by attending a course on hospital and operating theatre design.
“Every space, every pillar, every room (in Aptus and Novaptus Surgery Centres) was designed from scratch, in a user-friendly manner such that surgical environment and workflow is safe, efficient, accessible and productive,” she said.
She also took aesthetics into account. All four operating theatres at Novaptus Surgery Centre, for example, have glass modular walls and boast views of the sky and greenery.
Although her interest was in design, Ms Wong, who was born in Seremban in Malaysia and is now a Singapore citizen, took up nursing after completing the equivalent of the O Levels.
“Back then, when you’re poor, you will just take anything that comes your way,” said Ms Wong, whose father was a lorry driver and mother, a rubber tapper.
In 1988, Ms Wong started working in Singapore. Her first job was at Gleneagles Hospital, where she took on the role of senior staff nurse in charge of the labour ward, maternity ward and nursery.
“It was the Dragon Year and (there were) so many babies. I wanted to do operating theatre (OT) nursing but they got me to do midwifery instead. It was so stressful,” said Ms Wong, who later completed a nursing degree with the University of Southern Queensland.
She eventually transferred to Mount Elizabeth Hospital and Mount Alvernia Hospital to do OT nursing and, subsequently, went to Raffles Hospital where she was part of the team involved in setting up its operating theatre, endoscopy and day surgery centre.
In 2006, she received a scholarship, sponsored by a company that develops orthopaedic implants, to do a six-week orthopaedic nursing stint in Germany.
Just as Ms Wong – who is affectionately known as Sister Wong to co-workers and patients – was about to retire from nursing in 2010, opportunity knocked and she was recruited to manage Novena Surgery Centre, a private ambulatory centre.
“It was a new centre and we were struggling initially,” said senior consultant hand surgeon Lim Beng Hai, the former chairman of the centre’s board of directors. He worked with Ms Wong previously at Raffles Hospital.
“When I heard she was leaving Raffles Hospital, it was automatic for us (to get her on board). Sister Wong was a senior nurse manager, has a lot of experience in orthopaedics and is also a trainer of nurses. When she came on board (Novena Surgery Centre), she really revolutionised the system,” said Dr Lim, who is currently chairman of the board of directors of Novaptus and Aptus Surgery Centres.
While running the centre, Ms Wong said she was called a “slave driver”. Her meticulous and hardworking style riled nurses and staff who could not understand why she was pushing them so hard and making drastic changes at the centre.
It led to an exodus of nurses, who she said were replaced by new staff she personally trained.
“Many people didn’t like me. Actually, I just wanted high standards in place. I was there to turn the company around, which (I) eventually did. When it started making money, the staff were all very happy as they started getting bonuses and increments – now, they don’t leave,” she said with a laugh.
Seeing a growing demand for private ambulatory surgical centres, Dr Lim roped Ms Wong in to set up Aptus Surgery Centre in 2015. She was delighted to be given free rein to design a surgery centre and bring in quality operating equipment and instruments of her choice.
However, the contractors they engaged initially had doubts about using her design, layout and dimensions, which maximise the use of limited space and include an emergency escape route that had to meet the Singapore Civil Defence Force’s requirements.
“I met with a lot of resistance from the contractor. They probably had doubts because I’m just a nurse, and wondered what do I know about designing an operating theatre,” she said.
There were other considerations and challenges involved when designing an operating theatre in a non-hospital setting. For instance, while a hospital might have its own system of disposing biohazardous waste and its fire escape route, independent day surgery centres have to come up with their own systems to meet strict licensing requirements.
Aptus Surgery Centre, which opened at Paragon Medical Centre in 2016, is currently profitable, said Ms Wong. Bookings have started coming in at Novaptus, she said.
DRIVEN BY PASSION
While she is known to push her staff hard, Ms Wong has the same expectations of herself at work. When she first started managing Novena Surgery Centre, she took a crash course on how to read audit reports and balance sheets so that she could present financial reports to shareholders.
“I’m not from a finance background. But I had no choice – I had to learn how to do it so I could run the place properly,” she said.
And while getting the licensing done for the surgery centres, Ms Wong recalls sleeping at 2am and waking at 7am. “There was no time to waste. It was stressful, but I truly love my job,” she said.
Amid a busy work schedule, Ms Wong successfully raised two children, who are now in their 40s. Her son is an engineer while her daughter is an intensivist in Australia, where Ms Wong plans to retire eventually.
“I already have my own house in Australia. I bought a plot of land and designed the house – from scratch, of course,” she said.
For now, there is still work to be done. Ms Wong hopes to create more public awareness of ambulatory surgical centres, which she believes are a viable option in reducing escalating healthcare costs.
She also hopes for the day when nurses are financially rewarded for their hard work.
“Nurses’ pay should be revised. Look at the odd hours they do. If they are on shift, they work from 1pm to 9pm, and for those on night duty, it’s 9pm to 7am the next day. There is hardly any family life for them, yet they are not handsomely rewarded for their hard work,” she said.
Encouraging nurses to aim high in their careers and not be pigeonholed, Ms Wong said: “Tell them I’m their inspiration. Look at how much I’ve achieved.”