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Laughter in the face of death

Rohani Rani has advanced stage cervical cancer, which has spread to her spine. Hospice Klang and Dr Michael Yoong got her a special bed, and even brought a hairstylist to give her a haircut.

Rohani Rani has advanced stage cervical cancer, which has spread to her spine. Hospice Klang and Dr Michael Yoong got her a special bed, and even brought a hairstylist to give her a haircut.

How Dr Michael Yoong and the staff of Hospice Klang are bringing joy to an otherwise sombre situation.

It's a hot, sunny morning in Kampung Sireh, Port Klang. As Dr Michael Yoong, nurse Tay Yew Mee and driver Yap Eng Chong step out of their car, a woman gets up from a sofa excitedly and greets them with a big smile.

She is Siti Rubiah Yawil, 55, and from her cheerful outlook, you'd never guess she has advanced breast cancer. She lives in the village with her husband and three children, one of whom is disabled.

Yoong, who is chairman of Hospice Klang, and his team of volunteers are on their daily visits to cancer patients' homes. These are patients in the advanced stages of the disease where cure is no longer an option. The team starts their morning with smiles and laughter at Hospice Klang's headquarters in Taman Andalas, Klang.

This may come as a surprise to those who think hospices and palliative care are sombre affairs. Quite the contrary, it's about patients accepting their situation, and caregivers giving them comfort and joy. It's about taking away the pain and loneliness, so that the patients can live out their days with smiles and friendship.

Siti Rubiah cracks jokes even as she recounts how she first became ill.

"I used to transport schoolchildren on my motorcycle to earn some money," she laughs.

One day, she felt feverish, and didn't know why. Doctors in hospitals and clinics had no answers. Then her stomach began bloating. It was only after a mammogram that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to her abdomen, causing a build-up of liquid there.

"We give her medicine which we know how to administer, and she doesn't have to go to the hospital," says Yoong. "Otherwise she would have to go there to drain out the liquid."

Further down the road, at Jalan Kem, is Chew Yoke Lian, 52, who has advanced stage throat cancer. Looking at her now, it's hard to believe that she used to suffer excruciating headaches, pain so bad that she had to hit her head with a spoon continuously just to get some relief.

She used to need two injections a week, but now she doesn't even have to go to the hospital because of the medication given to her by Hospice Klang and the visits by Yoong and his team.

According to Dr Yoong, a hospice is about hope.

But it is hope redefined in the context of a patient's illness. Although a cure is no longer an option for these patients, "what they can hope for is to have no pain, and have friends who come to see them, and hope that they don't have to keep going to the hospital."

Hospice Klang started in 1995 as a charitable, non-governmental organisation that offers palliative care and service for free. Depending wholly on public donations, Hospice Klang also provides equipment such as wheelchairs and beds for free. Dr Yoong and his teams make almost 260 home visits in a month.

Some patients face more complicated situations than others. Rohani Rani, 48, who was formerly with the Customs Department, has advanced stage cervical cancer which has spread to her spine. She is bedridden, so her husband, Abdul Rahman Lazim, an employee with Tenaga Nasional Bhd, has to do the housework as well as care for their six-year-old son.

"At times, it can get a bit too quiet in the house, and my sister comes by sometimes," says Abdul Rahman. "If someone new comes to visit, it makes my wife happy.

Meanwhile, Rethinammah Petter, 64, of Taman Sentosa, Klang, has advanced breast cancer that has spread to her bones. Initially she could not walk and was confined to a wheelchair. But after being cared for by Hospice Klang, Rethinammah can even go to the bathroom by herself.

"The most important thing is self-care. Once they can do that, we will see whether they can do some other work," say the doctor.

Hospice Klang has 75 volunteers at the moment, but not all are members of the organisation. About 30 are committed volunteers.

Currently, non-medical volunteers are not in contact with the patients and only do administrative or fund-raising work. Only the volunteer drivers interact with the patients, chatting and making friends with them. But all that is about to change with the Helping Hands programme, which gets underway this month.

"Now we are taking volunteers' interaction with patients a step further," says Dr Yoong. "We will have them trained. We are getting them ready to be surrogate home-makers, especially for the female patients.

"Maybe they can give the patient a haircut, or a bath, and cook them a meal. Or just simply tidy up the house. We will be selecting people who have the right attitude, and also patients who want this to happen."

He estimates that training will take about four to six weeks. There is no need for professional experience, he says. The most important thing is to have a friendly personality and the ability to relate to others.

"We all can contribute a little bit to the charity and have a strong foundation of community service. That's why the volunteers are important because they represent the community."

"The person receiving care will also feel that she or he is wanted, rather than just a person who needs care. The patients have had all the clinical skills that they need, and what they need now is heart. So we need doctors, nurses and volunteers with a heart."






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