Girl who never let cancer get her down

SINGAPORE - Whenever Chinese language teacher Thern Siew Huay spots an unmotivated youngster, she relates the story of a former student, Koh Li Min.

Despite being on long-term medical leave, the cancer sufferer attended every lesson while battling the side-effects of chemotherapy. "Li Min really treasured every chance she had to hit the books," said Madam Thern. "Sometimes, I had to chase her home when she attended classes even while on medical leave."

The dedicated student, who lost her battle against the disease at the age of 18, has become the first posthumous recipient of the National Youth Achievement Award Gold Award.

Her father, Mr Simon Koh, 53, accepted the prize on her behalf earlier this month.

Madam Thern, 54, added: "While students were trying to absent themselves from some classes and from co-curricular activities, she treasured every opportunity to participate. She even scored better than those who attended classes."

Teachers, friends and nurses who spoke to The Sunday Times shared similar stories of Li Min's spirit of excellence - most remember her as a driven, positive, big-hearted and sweet-natured teenager.

The Raffles Institution (Junior College) student died from acute lymphocytic leukaemia in July.

She was diagnosed with the disease at 10 and suffered two relapses, each one tougher than the other, said her father. But that did not stop her from taking part in physically demanding activities such as cross-country running.

Li Min, who was 17 at the time, could hardly run, said her coach, Mr Steven Quek, 45. "She was a total beginner, but it was very clear to me that she was always trying."

After toughing it out, she was gradually able to jog for 5km, then 8km. By the time she was in JC2, she could do stretches of 10km after diligently training three times a week for a year.

She stunned her coach when she eventually came in fourth at the National Schools Track and Field Championships' 3,000m individual race walking event in April. Mr Quek deemed it an amazing feat for someone in her condition.

Unfortunately, Li Min suffered a second relapse shortly afterwards and was admitted in May to KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), where she underwent harsher chemotherapy treatment.

"I visited her two days before she died," said Ms Wang Juat Yong, her form teacher at the junior college. "She told me that she was happy that she would be getting a bone marrow transplant in August. Her classmates and I were very happy for her."

Li Min even messaged Ms Wang the evening before she died to request a special arrangement to take the A levels.

Nurses who spoke to The Sunday Times said the Ministry of Education pre-university scholarship holder was always seen with a book on her lap and was always busy typing furiously on her laptop.

"She was a very clever girl," said nurse manager Kamisah Salleh from KKH's paediatric oncology ward. "She would read up on her own illness, doctors' diagnosis and track her own progress."

Li Min also had her heart set on becoming a doctor and was working towards securing a place to study medicine at the National University of Singapore.

Her close friend of seven years, Vanessa Tey, 18, described her as someone who fought her illness bravely and was "full of the milk of human goodness".

"She would have made an excellent doctor because of her compassionate nature. She said her experience with health-care professionals inspired her and she wanted to help other people in a similar fashion."

Li Min never complained about her illness. Instead,she kept busy tutoring young cancer patients and even initiated a project for the visually impaired from Lighthouse School.

She contributed to Meet The People sessions as a petition writer and also volunteered at the Singapore Soka Association and at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games.

Ms Ng Hwee Chin, the principal social worker at the Children's Cancer Foundation, said Li Min's love for people and life was very impressive. Mr Koh, who calls her his beloved daughter, said she "fought bravely time and again, emerging victorious only to gain transient remission".

In a reflection penned a month before she died, the teenager wrote that despite the unpredictability of life, her personal mantra was "always advancing on with a forward-looking heart".

Paraphrasing lyrics from Miley Cyrus' The Climb, she said: "I have always known that there is going to be that mountain... but I'm never going to give up."

melodyz@sph.com.sg


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