DRIVER Mohammad Abdullah had saved over $30,000 in his Medisave account over 40 years - and saw it go in just three months after his daughter got ovarian cancer.
The youngest of his four kids, Siti Aishah, 17, was diagnosed last August and has been in the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) ever since.
Siti Aishah, like the rest of her siblings, has no health insurance and doctors have no idea how long she will have to stay in hospital.
Her surgery, chemotherapy and dialysis sessions, blood transfusions, treatments in the intensive care unit and morphine jabs chalked up a $41,000 hospital bill in just the first month.
Government subsidies and her father's Medisave paid most of that bill but chemotherapy, dialysis and morphine are not subsidised and must be paid for in cash. This took about $4,000.
Siti Aishah's final bill is still to come and her father is in a fix. His Medisave is gone, his savings are depleted, his wife - a Malaysian and a housewife - has no CPF or Medisave. His three older children have their own families and financial responsibilities.
Mr Mohammad, 58, earns $2,500 a month. 'I don't know how I'm going to pay,' he said. 'This is my fault. It never occurred to me to buy my children health insurance. I didn't think they'd fall seriously ill.'
Last week, it was announced that newborns and young children will be automatically insured by MediShield.
Medical social workers applaud this new initiative.
The KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), which cares for most sick children here, sees about 30 families seeking financial help each day, with at least 90 per cent of them admitting that they did not buy insurance for their kids.
KKH's chief medical social worker Sylvia Mun said: 'We see an entire spectrum of people, from the low- to middle-income.'
For low-income families, a three-day ward stay for something as minor as asthma can be a financial disaster.
But middle-income families find themselves in a rut when their children are hit by serious, chronic illnesses, said Mrs Mun, who covered her three children under MediShield as soon as they were born.
Each week, her team will see at least one family saddled with massive hospital bills, ranging in the hundreds of thousands.
'If the family can't qualify for Medifund or other subsidies, we accept instalment payments,' said Mrs Mun.
Families can be paying the hospital bills even long after their child has died.
Siti Aishah's illness shocked her family. Apart from the occasional cough or cold, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) student was never seriously ill.
Then, three months ago, she started having bad headaches for days. Then came unbearable stomachaches. Her stomach became so bloated that she looked seven months pregnant.
For four days, she could barely eat or drink, vomiting often. She was taken to SGH, where she was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. Doctors immediately removed one of her ovaries and a cancerous tumour in her womb but other complications set in. Her kidneys stopped functioning and there were blood clots in her lungs, causing breathing difficulties.
After being treated twice in the intensive care unit, her condition improved. She has had 20 sessions of chemotherapy and is slowly regaining strength.
Siti Aishah, who is 145cm tall, weighs only 30kg now and has lost almost all of her once-thick locks. She said: 'I know that the past few months have been difficult for my parents. I just want to get well and go home quickly.''
Mr Mohammad hopes to get financial help from SGH. 'If I can't get aid, I might just have to pay by instalments.'
His predicament is all too familiar to another family whose sick child also racked up massive medical bills.
The parents, both teachers, had not insured their two children. The mother, 41, said: 'We were planning to get insurance for the children but always procrastinated.'
Her seven-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was four. The treatment, which included chemotherapy, blood transfusions and steroid shots, lasted eight months, much of it in hospital.
The mother said: 'She was admitted to hospital more than 40 times in the first year. My husband and I were living out of our suitcases.'
The medical bills came up to $60,000, a quarter of which the parents paid for in cash. The rest came from their Medisave accounts.
Because the cancer was detected early, the prognosis was good. The girl recovered quickly and is in remission - and Primary 1.
But the family is taking no chances. The mother said: 'After our daughter's illness, we wasted no time buying health insurance for both our children.'
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