“God multiplied our loaves and fish!”: The Easter miracle of St Luke’s Eldercare nursing home

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by Tan Huey Ying // April 14, 2022, 3:14 pm


Two Easters ago, right at the brink of the Covid epidemic in March 2020, the team at St Luke's Eldercare was put to a test of skills. And of faith. All photos courtesy of St Luke's Eldercare.

“For such a time as this.”

The phrase was steadfastly lodged in place, unyielding under a mixed barrage of doubts and incredulity.

Two Easters ago, right on the brink of the Covid outbreak in March 2020, Dr Kenny Tan, CEO of St Luke’s ElderCare (SLEC), found himself in yet another “siao liao” (crazy) moment – this time, however, he was responsible for leading an entire team of people on a rollercoaster of events through the deep uncertainties of a pandemic.

“My rational side was thinking: You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Dr Kenny with a laugh as he recounted the events of the fateful night which effectively launched SLEC’s newest project – ahead of schedule, without a dry run or even much of a notice period.

“We need a favour”

The 190-bedder nursing home in Ang Mo Kio was due to admit its first residents on May 4, 2020. St Luke’s had just been handed the keys to the brand new facility in March and were in the midst of cleaning up and preparing the space for use.

Dr Kenny Tan, CEO of St Luke’s Eldercare (extreme left) with Ng Lay Ling (second from right) and some of the SLEC residential care staff. “We want to make an impact on those who are in their final stages of life through our service and the dedication of our staff and even our philosophy of care,” says Ng Lay Ling.

But at about 8pm on Monday, just four days before Good Friday, Dr Kenny received a call from authorities.

Should they – and could they – help?

“Kenny, we need a favour,” the official told him.

A Covid cluster had surfaced in a different nursing home – the first of many to come – and all the staff and residents of nursing home in Singapore were immediately quarantined, while visitors were barred.

With the Alpha variant of main concern then, little was known about Covid except that it was highly transmissible and that it often proved deadly for vulnerable groups of people, including the elderly. At its peak, this particular cluster of cases infected 16 residents, four of whom later died.

As arrangements were being made for the care of the elderly in that home, 11 residents tested negative but were at extremely high risk of being super spreaders. They were mobile – not bed-bound like most other residents – and had been mixing with some who had tested positive for Covid.

“Nobody knew what would happen, but our help was needed.”

“We don’t know if they have Covid and we don’t know if – or when – they will turn positive,” the official told Dr Kenny. “But we can’t keep them here and we can’t move them elsewhere because places are full.

“I know your home is only supposed to open in May but yours is the only one available now. Do you think you can take them?”

I’ll get back to you, was Dr Kenny’s steady reply.

But the moment he hung up the phone, he set off a flurry of action. 

Immediately, he called the directors and the board of the nursing home for advice: Should they – and could they – help? Were they ready or would they end up doing more harm than good? The danger was real: What if someone on staff contracted Covid – would the facility even be able to start operations less than one month later?

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“It was a very quick decision,” Ng Lay Ling, director of residential-based services at SLEC, told Salt&Light.

“It’s not that there were no considerations, but that we did it at three times the speed! Nobody knew what would happen, but our help was needed. We came together, weighed it out and then decided to say, yes, we’re here to help.”

“Go by faith lor,” she concluded, fully cognisant of the high stakes.

“We’ve never done this before”

While other nursing homes were scrambling to deal with Covid, SLEC faced an additional set of challenges: This was their first nursing home since the organisation was founded over 20 years ago.

“We were all greenhorns – all we had was the heart to serve.”

SLEC has extensive experience in running senior care centres and active ageing hubs, but residential care was an “expansion of ministry” which the team had “zero experience” in at the time, said Dr Kenny.

The leadership realised that while SLEC’s programs were reaching elders effectively, there was a gap in their continuum of service and they were not seeing seniors through their end-of-life journey, Lay Ling explained.

“We see a lot of things in the industry that we thought maybe we can make a difference in.

“There’s a huge sense of abandonment and neglect (in that area), and we wanted to bring the Gospel of Jesus into this space. Since we do a lot of engagement and empowerment of elders in daycare, we said, ‘Why can’t a nursing home be as lively and engaging as that?’”

St Luke’s Eldercare runs 23 daycare centres for seniors that focus on empowerment and engagement. It is this same culture that the leadership team wanted to bring to nursing homes. Each “ward” is set up like an apartment that even comes with a small pantry and dining area where elders can participate in activities like arts and crafts.

“Because it is our first nursing home, nobody really has any experience running it. So everyone just chips in to just serve these elders,” says Lay Ling.

So in 2017, when the MOH tender came up for a new nursing home in Ang Mo Kio, SLEC decided to submit a bid. Within six weeks, they put together a proposal that articulated a model of care based on SLEC’s service philosophy.

“It was a miracle that we got it,” said Dr Kenny.

In the lobby of each level is a bench specially designed to replicate those found at HDB void decks. Small touches like this throughout the building of the home help make the space less sterile and bring up familiar sights and sounds for seniors. Photo by Tan Huey Ying.

“We were all greenhorns – all we had was the heart to serve. The need is there, we present ourselves. It’s this whole feeling of ‘Just do lor. We’re here what.’” 

He joked: “Quite naive maybe. But passionately naive or naively passionate?”

“It started small. A mustard seed. A vision from the Lord indeed! / To cast our net as fishermen. In faith and trust. Like Peter then! / We didn’t know. And lacked the skill. But He poured out, beyond our fill. / We gave to Him, Our loaves and fish. He multiplied. Answered our wish!” Part of the poem written by Dr Kenny Tan at the dedication of the nursing home when it was launched. Photo of the nursing home being built in 2019.

Full dress rehearsal

God started to bring people alongside “at the right time”, added Dr Kenny. A manager who had the experience of setting up another nursing home; a nurse director of a large community hospital; a HR director and a wound specialist who came out of retirement; several others in the leadership team and even a chaplain.

“When we look back, so many things could have gone wrong with so many people. And yet, it was so smooth!” Dr Kenny Tan said of his experience in starting operations at the first nursing home by St Luke’s ElderCare in the midst of Covid in 2020.

Eventually, everything fell into place, and when the keys to the nine-storey building were handed over in March 2020, the team and staff were ready to do a dry run to test out the space and procedures before admitting their first residents in May.

Then Covid hit and they were called upon to host the 11 elders from the nursing home with a Covid cluster.

“That was our full dress rehearsal,” Dr Kenny quipped. “Really real.”

Thankfully, however, many of the issues and challenges they expected did not materialise into problems.

One of the 11 elders from the nursing home with the first Covid cluster amongst seniors receiving care from an SLEC staff. Though the risks were high, the board and leaders determined to do their best to help.

These elders had dementia and were considered difficult cases, which is why they were moved to SLEC for the two-week quarantine, Lay Ling explained. Some didn’t want to move and had to be coaxed down from the transport by SLEC staff in full PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). But eventually all 11 were admitted and were settled in without any fuss.

SLEC staff sending encouragement notes to their fellow staffers who had to be quarantined for two weeks together with the 11 temporary residents.

“That was a challenge in itself,” Lay Ling said, adding that under normal circumstances, only one or two elders would be admitted each day.  “It could have been very chaotic, but it turned out well. And we really thank God for that.”

Their quarantine passed uneventfully and all 11 seniors returned to their nursing home.

Who knew?

The next curveball did not take long to come.

After the 11 temporary residents left, the team at SLEC quickly resumed preparations for their launch and prayer dedication, and did so successfully when the first of their residents came in on May 4, 2020.

“First week, still okay. By second week …”

Then, barely two weeks after they admitted their first residents, MOH released a national directive for all front-line nursing home staff to be housed in hotels or on-site for six full weeks to reduce community exposure.

With the home at half-capacity then, SLEC nursing home staff were allocated wards on the unoccupied upper floors of the residence to stay in. With no intermingling between floors, each person could only visit the ground floor to pick up deliveries and shuttle between their assigned floors for work and residence.

The rules only applied to front-liners, but Lay Ling and several of the home’s management team also decided to move in for the full six weeks.

“We just felt it was our duty to be beside our staff and show them that we are all in this together,” she shared. “These are the people I’m supposed to care for and lead. You can’t lead just by talking and then going home.”

Lockdown was a “blessing in disguise”, said Lay Ling, who also stayed in for six weeks even though she did not need to. The new staff, some of whom were foreigners, were able to forge a strong bond.

So for six weeks, Lay Ling did not leave the compound. “We could not even go to the nearby shops – very restricted.

“First week, still okay. By second week …” she trailed off with a laugh. “I did miss my family and I missed going out. But when I look back, it’s really a blessing in disguise.”

The staff ­– mostly foreigners from Myanmar and Philippines – were new to Singapore and St Luke’s and the lockdown provided the team with the opportunity to get to know each other and bond.

Treats by well-wishers arranged by Dr Kenny and the SLEC leadership team were a regular occurrence; staff cooked for each other and notes of encouragement were even sent between floors.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I was amazed,” Dr Kenny chipped in. “I didn’t hear a word of complaint! You know, being cooped up in the same place, the stress builds. It’s like a pressure cooker.”

Though there were constant updates from Lay Ling and her fellow director, Dr Edward Poon, to Dr Kenny on the outside, he was very worried, he admitted. Especially with such a new team.

“No cry for help? Are you alright? Are you sure you’re alright?” he would ask.

Still, there was not much else he could do but to look for ways to encourage them, show them that they were remembered and loved.

“I felt like Moses. It’s almost like I placed them in a situation where they have to handle situations and I cannot be there with them. I could only say I’m here to support you.

“So I just keep sending them food and ice cream,” he concluded. “And I just have to trust from a distance that God will provide for them.”

Care packs for staff were frequently donated and ice cream was an especially welcomed treat. Lay Ling (right) with some of the staff picking up their snacks at the lobby.

Outside of the home, Dr Kenny was managing the closure of over 20 day activity centres and the well-being of more than 2,000 elders who had to go home for six weeks.

“In a sense, there was pandemonium outside – 20 centres! Inside our residence was an oasis,” he said. Laughing, he added jokingly: “I think they enjoyed themselves a lot more than the rest of us outside.” 

Divine pacing

Eventually, measures were eased and the nursing home could resume regular operations. The accelerated learning curve for SLEC leadership tapered off.

Miraculously, the nursing home did not experience a single Covid cluster until late 2021, Lay Ling added.

In 2020 and right through 2021, many nursing homes were scrambling to contain clusters of the original deadly strain of the virus, but SLEC was somehow spared. 

“Even with Covid, we say that God paced our training.”

She believes it was “God’s timing to train us up” even though they knew that developing a cluster was inevitable and they needed to prepare the home to handle a Covid cluster onsite.

They had their first scare only in October last year – more than a year after their rollercoaster opening and during the rise of the Delta variant. All staff and residents were tested but were thankfully negative. It proved to be a valuable stress-test of the emergency Business Continuity Planning they had just put together.

The first real cluster at the home happened only in February this year. By then they were prepared.

“I guess God knows how much we can take, what our capability is. Like, ‘If I give you a full-blown crisis, you probably will collapse,’” Lay Ling mused. “Even with Covid, we say that God paced our training. We were taught progressively.

“In all of this, there was His grace and favour which was just amazing.”

A return to child-like faith

Setting up this nursing home taught us to return to having a child-like faith, Lay Ling said. “We had no experience – but also no baggage. So we learnt how to trust God. I mean, He is our Lord, so what else is there to say?”

But that’s where faith is birthed, Dr Kenny pointed out. “Twenty years in the daycare business, we have been there, done that, we’re a thought-leader; but did we still need child-like faith? Yes.

“It’s a constant reminder. When we look back, so many things could have gone wrong with so many people. And yet things went so smoothly!

“That’s what was amazing, right? It’s not as if we prepared for it and therefore it panned out well. We were totally unprepared, and yet it turned out well. That’s the miracle.”

Lay Ling added: “We just do what He calls us to do: Make a difference to the elders in their last stage of life. The rest, we just have to work around it and God has to supply everything else to make it possible for us to do that.”

St Luke’s ElderCare is raising funds which will go toward supporting 5,000 elderly with physiotherapy, transport, milk feeds, diapers, day and residential care. You can donate here.

All donations will receive 250% tax deduction. In addition, donations to SLEC will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Community Silver Trust Fund.

Every donation of S$100 to St Luke’s ElderCare entitles you to a copy of Break Through – A Pilgrim’s Journey as a token of appreciation. Written by Dr Kenny Tan, the book is a compilation of personal and visual musings, reflections and poetry after his first visit to Israel in 2019.

Why do we need Jesus? How do we receive Jesus if we are ready? Click here to find out. 

Find a Church: If you would like to attend a church to learn more about the Christian faith, here is where you can find one among over 500 churches in Singapore.


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About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".