He didn't believe that he had a heart problem

SINGAPORE - Your heart is collapsing, the general practitioner (GP) told the father of three young children.

Can't be, he thought.

He was very fit, having taken part in four marathons, with daily 8km runs and 60-lap swims. A second GP saw the same warning signs and again told him to see an Accident and Emergency (A&E) doctor.

Eventually, it took his daughter's paediatrician to tell him that his life was in danger.

Mr Steven Tok, 40, was diagnosed in December 2010 with moderate to severe aortic valve regurgitation, a condition where the aortic valve of his heart doesn't close tightly. Some blood pumped out of the heart's main pumping chamber may then leak back into it.

Doctors have told him his condition is congenital, which means he was born with it.

He said: "Initially, I could still do what I wanted. After a few months, the symptoms showed up - chest pains, shortness of breath and blackouts."

He would try to carry his younger daughter, but would have to put her down as the room would start spinning. Even walking up the stairs would make him feel giddy.

In the past, the running fanatic would finish his youth-related work at a church at midnight, run and be home by 2am.

But soon enough, a previously easy 8km run at Bedok Reservoir turned into half a round, after which he would be panting and have to stop.

Said Mr Tok: "When I couldn't complete my runs, I thought I was tired, maybe I was just being concerned about my condition.

"Then I realised it wasn't psychological."

He said he misses the sweat and the mental state of pushing one's body further. "Fortunately, I've reconciled my longing when I go past the places I used to run at - MacRitchie, Bedok Reservoir, East Coast Park."

Exercise is now just 30 laps in the pool, but no longer with competition in mind.

"Once I push myself a bit, I can feel my heart palpitate very fast, more giddiness," he said.

The upside is, while he used to spend three hours exercising daily, he now has more time to spend with his children.

Said Mr Tok's wife, Madam Helen Ng, 39, a project assistant and kindergarten teacher: "I'm worried because (his condition) is like a time bomb. Something fatal can happen any time."

Prepared

She said they have prepared for it. She and her husband attended a first-aid course in June last year and brought home a dummy to demonstrate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to their children. Mr Tok's condition had also cost him employment.

He was diagnosed while serving notice at the church and said that when he later showed his medical report to an interested employer, he was rejected.

"I didn't realise the seriousness of this when it comes to applying for jobs. When they find out, chances of them employing me is quite slim.

"The public should know that while we have a health problem, it doesn't mean we can't work."

He now visits the National Heart Centre for checkups every half a year. Heart murmurs are differentiated by grades one to six, with six as the loudest; his are four to five.

"It's hard to swallow. It's a process I hope others do not have to go through," said Mr Tok, adding that he cherished his second chance at life that the diagnosis brought him.

"People must exercise with care and should check their hearts. From my experience, you never know if you have a condition that could kill if ignored," he said.


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