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Helping Patients Breathe Easy Again

Muhammad Zikry, a Respiratory Therapist, outside Tower B of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

Muhammad Zikry couldn't help but feel a sense of quiet satisfaction as he helped his patient walk around the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

To us, a few small steps don't seem like much, but for Zikry it was a sign that his patient was getting better, and this meant that he would soon meet the criteria for an organ transplant.

As the patient's lungs were no longer effective, he had to be hooked up to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine. The machine draws blood from major blood vessels to be oxygenated and removes carbon dioxide, thus bypassing the need for a patient's lungs.

Eventually, his patient was well enough to go for a lung transplant (from an organ donor). Soon after, the patient made a full recovery and could return home.

For Zikry, meaningful moments like these are what make the job worth it.

"Whether it's providing critical care or diagnostics and rehabilitation, a Respiratory Therapist (RT) has a vital role to play throughout all phases of patient care. And it is through our work that we can make a change in our patients' lives."

Zikry's first real exposure to the healthcare profession came about when his grandfather suddenly experienced difficulty breathing.

"He mentioned the word semput  which is Malay for feeling short of breath. I initially misunderstood what he said and thought that he was having an asthma attack. I studied Mandarin and so I didn't think that he meant something else."

"So, when my grandfather's inhaler didn't work, our family quickly rushed him to the nearest hospital for treatment and asked them to revise his asthma medication." 

As it turns out, the healthcare professionals on duty determined that Zikry's grandfather's lungs were filling up with fluid and this made it difficult for him to breathe. This was because he was suffering from a kidney condition which caused his body to retain water. "That was the first time I realised being short of breath does not automatically mean that the primary problem was with the lungs."

With so many different terminologies and concepts being thrown around, Zikry and his family found themselves feeling lost and confused. Fortunately, the staff at the hospital were more than willing to explain things to them.

"Back then, I already had an idea of what healthcare professionals do, but seeing my grandfather in the hospital showed me the true value of their work. That was when I decided that I wanted to become a doctor, or at least be a part of the healthcare sector."

"This incident is also a big reason why I make it a point to speak to my patients' family members and walk them through various medical terms and concepts. Having a friendly face explaining things to them works wonders to reduce their stress and anxiety."

Charting out a Course for the Future

While Zikry had plans to study medicine, all of that changed when he came across an advertisement for healthcare scholarships and job shadowing opportunities on his polytechnic's Facebook page. Wanting to learn more, he decided to participate in the programme.

"Looking back, this was a defining moment in my career. I was assigned to Singapore General Hospital (SGH) where I shadowed RTs who worked in the ICU. The entire experience was exciting, rewarding, and educational in equal measures."

Invigorated by his experiences, Zikry decided that he wanted to pursue a degree in respiratory therapy.

"I saw respiratory therapy as an alternative to practising medicine, in the sense that I'd get to be involved in critical care and potentially save lives as part of my job. The latter is probably what drew me most to the profession, since I wanted a job that is meaningful and allows me to make a difference in the lives of others."

Zikry's goal became a reality when he applied for the Healthcare Merit Award (HMA) from MOH Holdings (MOHH). The scholarship gave him the opportunity to pursue a degree overseas, and he opted for the University of Missouri in the United States (US).

Pursuing a Respiratory Therapy Degree at the University of Missouri

Life overseas proved to be quite an exciting experience for Zikry. For one, he had to contend with a very different educational culture.

Lectures at the University of Missouri are delivered in a casual, even conversational manner, with students expected to think critically and work independently. His experience in the Singapore education system made it easy for Zikry to adapt and flourish in this new environment despite the sudden change.

Zikry and his classmates after their last clinical day as a class. After this they went for their respective external clinical attachments.

As part of his RT training, Zikry participated in various clinical attachments. These saw him posted to various cities around the US which allowed him to learn more about respiratory therapy and general healthcare.

Zikry working at a mobile clinic in the Dominican Republic in the rural areas where there's no access to healthcare. There, he worked with fellow aspiring healthcare professionals to treat patients under the guidance of doctors.

"During my time overseas, I got the opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic. Seeing the condition of some of my patients made me realise how important access to quality healthcare really is."

"It also reminded me not to take my life in Singapore for granted, and inspired me to provide those under my care with the best possible treatment."

Helping Singaporeans Breathe Easier

After 4 years in the US, Zikry graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor's in Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, Respiratory Therapy. Currently, he is working as an RT at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH).

Zikry works with other allied health professionals to manage patients with a variety of medical conditions requiring respiratory support; whether through means of mechanical ventilation, oxygen therapy, or medication. 

Zikry conducting checks on a ventilator that is intended for intensive care.

He also uses his skills to assist doctors with procedures like bronchoscopies and intubations. As RTs in Singapore work mainly in the ICU, Zikry and his colleagues are always on high alert.

Patients admitted to the ICU are often very ill and their health conditions can quickly deteriorate with zero warning. When that happens, medical professionals must move swiftly and act decisively to stabilise their patients.

Despite the challenges (and stresses) of his job, Zikry makes it a point to appreciate the little things. Whether it's watching a patient recover or helping them feel more comfortable, Zikry takes joy in knowing that he has a vital role in helping his fellow Singaporeans get better.

Looking Towards the Future

When it comes to the future, Zikry said, "I'm going to focus on my profession and make sure I do my best. Once things start settling down, I'm looking to take up a MBA (Master of Business Administration). This would let me learn from professionals in other industries and hopefully allow me to introduce new and exciting solutions to my job."

"I believe that one should always continue learning and never be afraid to take new opportunities. It's good to be cautious, but don't let fear and uncertainty stop you. Most importantly, have confidence in yourself! Even if you can't, it's better to try than to look back and think about what-ifs."

MOH Holdings (MOHH) is currently offering scholarships to nurture the next generation of nursing, pharmacy and allied health professionals. These scholarships are in partnership with public healthcare institutions and allow you to study in local and overseas universities. For more details on the health science disciplines offered, check out this page.