Rare illness renders a nurse in need of help

By Ng Yi-Sheng

Here on TOC, there’ve been a number of stories about high medical costs in Singapore, and the crippling effect they’ve had on our fellow citizens in times of illness.

I’d like to share a similar story. However, it isn’t about a Singaporean citizen, not in the legal sense of the word, anyway. It’s about a young woman who studied here, worked a vital job that few others would sign up for.

An earlier photo of Jocelyn by Elwin Goh

Her name is Jocelyn Suarez. She’s a 23 years old permanent resident here, and she’s a nurse – in fact, she was the valedictorian of her nursing class. She’s been working at Changi Prison, giving health services to people the state deems least deserving of freedom. At the same time, she’s managed to be active in the indie arts community, winning fans with her warm, kooky personality and her beautiful poems. “She has a passion for writing, and she also has a passion for nursing,” her father Roberto Suarez told me.

Jocelyn is currently in hospital with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. This is a rare and life-threatening disorder that attacks your skin and mucous membranes, so that it’s almost as if your skin is burning off from the inside. She had to spend three weeks in Singapore General Hospital (SGH)’s ICU ward, on painkillers and sedatives and undergoing dialysis – her condition was so bad that it triggered organ failure.

Thankfully, it now looks like she’s going to pull through. She’s in the high dependency ward, and she’s battling some related bacterial infections, but she can already speak and swallow soft food again.

Her real problem now is her hospital debts. Her bill currently stands at around $80,000, and it’s expected to go over $100,000, wiping out her family’s life savings completely. Her father’s had to take out a loan, so that he can pay off at least part of this payment.

One reason these bills are so high is that many subsidies aren’t open to permanent residents like the Suarezes, even though Roberto Suarez has worked here for the last thirteen years. The family’s tried to get a cheaper Class C6 ward, only to be told that these were only open to citizens, and that they would have to choose within the Class B range. It’s not just the rooms they’ll have to pay more for – every single treatment is more expensive, even if it’s identical to what’s offered in Class C.

It’s also doubtful if the Suarezes can get help from their MP.  As non-citizens, they don’t have voting rights. There’s a fair amount of anti-foreigner sentiment on the ground as well, that might be a disincentive to action.

I understand that many people would say we have to take care of Singapore citizens first. But I can’t help thinking that, as a people, we can be better than that. We have huge federal reserves. When we finally do overhaul the healthcare system, we could and should create a national health service that helps non-citizens as well as citizens, just like the ones they have in the UK and other European nations.

The HELP JOCELYN fundraiser

I don’t think Singaporeans are hard-hearted. We’ve given regularly to charitable causes, both at home and abroad. Even in Jocelyn’s case, her employers, Parkway Health, have taken a pledge to support her in this time of need, and may help to ease her medical expenses. (Her father also notes that SGH’s standard of care has been excellent.)

As for Jocelyn’s friends from the indie arts community, they’re running a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help her with her bills. Part of the campaign will be a day of music, poetry and other art forms held at Home Club this Saturday, 4 January, from 3pm to 10pm, with acts including dub band Wobology, rock band The Voodoo Sound and slam poets Stephanie Dogfoot and Benjamin Chow. There’ll also be a screening of Jocelyn’s own performances of her poetry. I’ll be there, and I hope you will too.

In the end, it’s not just a pink NRIC or a red passport that makes someone part of our community. I don’t even think I should be talking about what makes someone one of us, and what differences there should be in public policies between citizens, non-citizens, and those who fall in between.

All I know is that Jocelyn is a friend who deserves our care and help. And I’m sharing her story here, asking for your help to save her. Because that’s what friends do.

The HELP JOCELYN campaign has its page at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-jocelyn–2
These are the details of the fundraiser.

Date: Saturday, 4 January, 2014
Time: 3pm to 10pm. Open-mic from 4-6pm.
Venue: Home Club
20 Upper Circular Road
The Riverwalk B1-01/06
Singapore 058416

Admission is $25, inclusive of one drink. More information at https://www.facebook.com/events/579301542142675/