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3 Nov 2003
by Val Chua
Emotions ran high on a balmy Sunday night as the normally stoic Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew nearly broke down while recounting the ordeal his wife went through in London recently.
The troubles that the couple faced - including joining a queue in a free hospital - when Mrs Lee was hit by stroke two Sundays ago, revealed how differently two systems worked.
"I cannot tell you how restless and unhappy we felt," he said at a community event in Jalan Bukit Merah yesterday.
"We run a (healthcare) system where you have to co-pay ... but you get the attention. There, no attention, just join the queue," he said grimly.
The first sign of trouble was that there was no private hospital with CT scan facility at night in London, he told residents and community leaders.
So, Mrs Lee had to go to the NHS hospital nearest to the Four Seasons Hotel where they were staying - a free facility called the Royal London Hospital - and join the queue.
"We waited 45 minutes for the ambulance for a 10-minute drive," said Mr Lee in his first public appearance since the couple returned on Friday.
"In Singapore, within half-an-hour, you would be in SGH (Singapore General Hospital), TTSH (Tan Tock Seng Hospital) ... and within one-and-a-half to two hours flat, you'd know what went wrong."
When Mrs Lee reached The Royal London Hospital at 12.30am, it happened to have three cardiac arrest patients.
Mr Lee was told his wife's brain problem was "not as important" as the cardiac arrest cases, he recounted solemnly. She would have had to wait till 8am the next morning for her CT brain scan if 10 Downing Street had not intervened to get her early attention. High Commissioner Michael Teo had sought help from 10 Downing Street at 2am on Sunday and she received treatment at 3.30am on the night itself.
"Once upon a time, it was a wonderful hospital. But after 40 plus years ... the system cannot deliver. There's no connection between those in the system and the patients," he said.
But it's the way free healthcare systems work, he added, noting that Singapore must not go down that path, even though there are calls for free C class wards in public hospitals here.
"It's how the system works ... They did not discriminate against us," he noted of his London experience.
This contrasted sharply with how quickly Singaporeans - including national carrier Singapore Airlines - reacted to the situation.
Even though doctors initially advised that Mrs Lee stay put in London for three weeks, Mr Lee decided fly her back once her condition stabilised.
And then there was the big worry that she would get a spasm onboard, he recounted.
But he needn't have worried. Within 48 hours, SIA had fitted out SQ321 with medical support of oxygen tanks and other fixtures for a drip.
"No other airline would have done this," Mr Lee said, looking visibly touched.
On board were also two Intensive Care nurses from Changi General Hospital, two doctors, as well as officials from SIA who made sure all the equipment worked.
"Everyone knows his job," said Mr Lee. "Within 12 to 13 hours, we'd reached Changi Airport. It was a big relief," he said. "Twelve to 13 hours. Your heart stops beating sometimes. We landed at Changi Airport. Great relief. I had my granddaughter (Li Xiuqi) with me. She is very fond of her grandmother. She was so relieved."
Mrs Lee was whisked off in an ambulance to Singapore General Hospital, where she is recovering.
"I think this experience has changed my granddaughter's view of Singapore," Mr Lee said.
The overseas ordeal has made him even more assured that Singapore has what it takes to succeed, despite the downturn. "It's how we respond in an emergency that determines how we fight back. And I have enormous confidence that we can fight back."
The Singapore system - with its efficiency and fighting spirit - must be kept, he said.
"You slacken, you choose the easy way, and you'd be finished," he said.
Choking back tears, he added: "I have immense confidence that in an emergency, our people respond ... If we can do that, we can succeed."