For many, the COVID-19 pandemic was a time to put plans on hold – but not for 29-year-old Joan Poh.

Joan, who is part of Singapore’s national rowing team, continued her pursuit of her Olympic dream, while at the same time, taking a step further to join healthcare workers at the frontline.

Gunning for the Olympics

When the Government was actually calling back all the ex-nurses, ex-medical workers and healthcare people, it was telling that we needed all hands on deck.  I felt like it was time to play my part as a nurse.
Joan, on returning to nursing amid the pandemic

When COVID-19 struck, Joan was training in Melbourne. Her sights were set on the qualification race in April 2020 that would qualify Singapore for rowing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

At this point, she had been on no-pay leave from Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) for more than a year, to focus on full-time training.

But when it was announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were to be postponed due to the COVID-19 situation, it took some time for the news to sink in for Joan. Her dreams of being the second Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics would have to be put on hold.

Naturally, she was frustrated. “I did put aside all my other life plans and goals, to chase the Olympic dreams for the past three years… And finally, come 2020, I suddenly couldn't see the finish line”

While she had much to be upset about, she did not wallow in self-pity. Instead, when she saw that the healthcare industry needed all the manpower it could get, she made the decision to return to nursing, at TTSH.

She felt it was the right thing for her to do, even though her goal so far had been solely focused on training for the Olympics.

“I felt like I needed to do something, something more. I felt like it was a time for me to put on my uniform and go back to work,” she explains.

Joan at TTSH

Pouring her heart into nursing

When people are sick, they are at their most vulnerable. They open up their bare self to you, and allow you to do things for them that they would not allow other people to.  I am honoured to care for people the way I’d like to be cared for.
Joan, on her role as a nurse

As a staff nurse in TTSH’s renal unit, Joan’s job is to assist dialysis patients. But she sees her job as more than simply treating patients.

“I personally like to see the patient as a person with a dream and aspiration, like myself. And being able to speak up for their best interest is something that really draws me in, to learn about them as a person,” she tells us.

Joan feels strongly that nurses hold an important collaborative role, in acting as the advocate for the patient, especially when the patient has to deal with medical professionals from various departments.

As a nurse, she feels that she’s in a privileged position to make a difference, simply by listening to patients. “We see a lot of patients, right? But patients only see a few nurses or doctors. We are going to be how they remember their experience in the hospital.” she muses.



Keeping the dream alive

When you have a dream and a motivation, you will somehow find it in yourself to keep going. It’s like how some people wonder how a person can be a mother and a nurse at the same time... For me, my child is rowing and my aspiration to get to the Olympics.
Joan, on how she keeps going 

Even as she’s back in her scrubs, helping patients, it has not been an easy road juggling both training and nursing.

When she was training full-time, she had the luxury of planning her training time and setting aside time for recovery. Now, she can no longer do that, as the better part of her day is taken up by work.

“I try to wake up earlier in the morning to put in one (training) session. Then after work, I'll put in another session,” she tells us.

It does take a toll on her. Her best friend, Qihui Ng, 35, notes how Joan is so tired at times it’s hard for her to stay awake even at gatherings with friends.

But despite her grueling routine, Joan has taken things one step further, even finding the time to mentor her juniors in the sport.

Sherdyn Teng, 25, who has benefitted from Joan’s guidance, is appreciative, as “not many elite athletes, with their busy schedules, are willing to go the extra mile of guiding juniors, but Joan does it, even while juggling her nursing job”.

“I still want to know whether I'm Olympic material”

Joan still has a firm vision to pursue her Olympic dream, and says she’ll keep going till she sees it come to fruition.

Her journey was made possible by the people around her. Joan shares that the people who stood by her – family, close friends, and partner - were those who believed in her, even when they did not understand what she was doing.

Her organisation, TTSH, played a big part too, allowing her to go on no-pay leave for a whole year. “I wasn't a winning athlete, all I had was a dream. And they saw value in it,” she says. 

With that, she’ll continue pushing forward as a rower, and the people around her have complete faith in her pursuit. Qihui points out, “Both representing Singapore in rowing, and being a nurse requires hard work and ‘heart’ work.

“Joan has both.”

Keep going. And it will happen. Even if you keep making wrong turns, you won’t know if the next turn is the right one.
Joan, on her advice to people who have had to put their dreams on hold
The article is part of a series of stories of individuals who have showed support to fellow Singaporeans during this fight against COVID-19.