Spreading the Word
Singaporean Jacqueline Chen spearheads efforts to improve the health of Cambodians through public education and free treatment for tuberculosis patients.
BY ALYWIN CHEW
PHOTOS OPERATION ASHA (CAMBODIA)
he trauma of being involved in a car accident that nearly killed her mother in 2005 made Singaporean Jacqueline Chen reflect on her life.
“Before the accident, I had led a sheltered life, focused on myself,” says Chen, 32.
“After the accident, I wanted to make the most of what I had to do good. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to do something that would positively impact people’s lives.”
As an undergraduate at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, she signed up for numerous youth activities to help people with autism and intellectual disabilities. Later, in 2008, she obtained a Master in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, as she believed the knowledge would enable her to make an impact on society.
Upon her graduation, she joined Singapore’s Ministry of Health, where she helped develop healthcare strategies for the country’s ageing population. In 2012, Chen left the civil service and joined Operation ASHA (OpASHA), a non-profit organisation committed to eradicating tuberculosis (TB) in countries such as India and Cambodia. As a development fellow at OpASHA, she was in charge of securing funding for the organisation.
After just a year with OpASHA Cambodia, Chen was appointed country director in 2013 and has since helped expand the organisation’s initial scope of five operational districts to 15 across Cambodia. OpASHA Cambodia has reached out to more than two million disadvantaged Cambodians in Phnom Penh and Takeo province through TB education, diagnosis, counselling and treatment, and has saved about 5,000 people annually.
“It was rough in the beginning… but the satisfaction from positively impacting another personʼs life keeps me going.”
Jacqueline Chen, country director of OpASHA Cambodia
Besides offering reactive measures such as providing TB victims with free medication, Chen and her team have also established door-to-door screening initiatives, as well as a programme to conduct mass screenings for students at 33 schools in Phnom Penh, and to train teachers to screen for and refer students with TB symptoms to OpASHA’s field team.
These measures have proven to be effective in the early detection of TB. For instance, Neary Kaknaka, a 7-year-old Cambodian girl, was diagnosed with extrapulmonary tuberculosis, a noncontagious form of the disease, after a house visit by OpASHA staff in June. She was put on a six-month treatment course a day after her diagnosis, and is on the road to recovery.
But dispensing free medication only solves part of the problem, says Chen. Many TB patients in Cambodia are often ostracised by friends and family due to the misconception that the disease is highly contagious. Not all forms of TB are contagious, and one is usually infected only after prolonged exposure – ranging from days to weeks – to TB droplets in the air. To battle the stigma, OpASHA actively educates people about TB, including within student and indigenous populations and disadvantaged communities.
Isabella Pan, an American who has been interning at OpASHA since June, is among those who has seen first-hand the impact the organisation has made through her interactions with numerous Cambodians during home visits.
“I love asking the patients what they plan to do after they complete their treatment because I get to see the excitement in their eyes when they talk about going back to work, or continuing their studies. It’s amazing to see how OpASHA has helped these patients regain control over their lives,” says Pan, an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.
Aside from conducting fieldwork, Chen also spearheads efforts in designing mobile applications that help improve TB detection rates and reduce turnaround time for those registering for its treatment programme. The apps provide real-time information on patients and individuals who show signs of TB to OpASHA’s field team, its management team and its diagnostic labs, thus allowing for quicker follow-ups.
Most recently, Chen has been paying for trips to Singapore out of her own pocket to reach out to potential donors. Her selfless contributions have not gone unnoticed. Lon Sokhara, OpASHA Cambodia’s administrative and finance officer and one of 60 people who work with Chen, praises her abilities and dedication. He says that Chen quickly tackled problems with fundraising and management after she arrived three years ago.
“Jacqueline advises our teams from small tasks to much larger ones, directing us every step of the way. She keeps the operation running smoothly and is dedicated to her work. She rarely takes breaks and always commits herself to large projects,” says Sokhara.
Meanwhile, Chen believes that her Singaporean work ethic has rubbed off on her local colleagues, who have, as a result, developed a rather keen interest in Singapore’s affairs. Chen recalls how they were quick to offer their condolences when Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away last year, and how they sent her congratulatory messages when Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling won the country’s first Olympic gold medal at the Rio Olympics in August.
This sense of camaraderie has been hard-won for Chen, whose own needs have taken a back seat. She says: “There were many quiet nights when I doubted my decision. I couldn’t relate to a lot of experiences my peers were having back home, such as marriage, getting a new house or car, and having kids.”
Besides trading in a better-paying job and a more comfortable life in Singapore to work in Cambodia, she also has to deal with the challenges of living in a developing country. These include a flooded office after heavy rainfall. She says: “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about working for a non-governmental organisation in Cambodia, it’s that you simply roll with the punches.”
She has also accepted electrical outages as part and parcel of daily life, even though purchasing a generator would solve the problem. She says: “It costs US$90 to treat a patient with tuberculosis. That works out to 50 cents a day over a six-month period. Every dollar spent on something else is one dollar less for our patients.
“So far, the generator has not made it to the essential items list yet. Our patients come first.”
Looking ahead, she wants to take on a bigger role to help improve the public health sector in the region. She says: “It was rough in the beginning. But the satisfaction from positively impacting another person’s life keeps me going.”
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