Angels of mercy at the core
ONE full year before the Hong Kong Paediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Unit was established at the Prince of Wales Hospital in 1988, Dr Patrick Yuen Man-pan, reader in paediatrics at the Chinese University, convinced three nurses to join him.
More than six years later, the founder of the unit says of the three: ''Without them, we doctors would not be able to function. They are the backbone of the unit, the people who provide quality care 24 hours a day.'' Sister Lau Hing-wah and nurses Shirley Wai and Salina Puk have become more special each year.
The unit has trained more than 30 nurses since 1988. Only seven remain. Dr Yuen said nursing in a bone marrow transplant unit was very stressful. The pressures were so great, most centres overseas allowed nurses in that speciality two months off annually.
''Our three angels of mercy form the core of the unit. They are the backbone. It is easier for us doctors. We make our rounds, scribble a few notes and disappear. They are the ones who ensure everything is done right, around the clock,'' Dr Yuen said.
Three years ago, the trio underwent two months of special training at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Centre in Seattle. They returned in time to help care for the unit's first successful bone marrow transplant patient, who received marrow from her sister in February 1991.
Ms Wai accepted the training because she knew the skills would enable her to help young cancer patients and give them a better chance to survive.
But, however much she hoped to be professional at all times, she admitted to being devastated when her first patient died.
''I have learnt to come to terms with one simple truth. Life or death is not in our hands. We help most by providing the children with the best possible care and concern as long as they are alive,'' Ms Wai said.
The nature of the illness and the constant intensive care required means each nurse takes care of one patient, and they develop very close ties.
All three admitted they had to struggle to remain calm each time a child died. They agreed desperately sick children were braver than the nurses who cared for them.
''They don't just comfort each other. They comfort us. They know how we feel about them and know just how and when to reach out to us,'' Sister Lau said.
Both Sister Lau and Ms Wai said they had learnt to be more positive, brave and optimistic from the cancer children they looked after.
The best lesson their young tutors had imparted was how to treasure life and everything it had to offer.