Teen who lost fingers in juicing accident clears N-level exams

Teen who lost fingers in juicing accident clears N-level exams
Originally right-handed, Yvonne took more than a month to learn how to write with her left hand.
PHOTO: The New Paper

In a horrifying accident in 2013, Yvonne Tan Li Xuan's right hand got caught in a sugar cane juicer.

She lost her right index and middle fingers and her thumb was partially severed. She went through an operation to save her partially severed thumb.

The right-handed teenager had to learn how to do everything with her left hand, such as holding things and writing.

Her injuries also meant that it took time before Yvonne, who is in Girls' Brigade, could finally lift her arms up 90 degrees to her body while marching.

On Thursday, the girl, who returned to school two months after the accident, collected her N-level results in Guangyang Secondary School.

She did well enough to go on to Secondary 5, something the Normal (Academic) student had aimed for.


But despite being proud of her achievement, the 16-year-old still lives with a tinge of sadness that she tries to hide from the world.

Speaking to The New Paper on Thursday before she collected her results, Yvonne said that her mind goes back to the accident from time to time.

"It's human nature (to think about it). I am still quite affected," she said.

She said that since the accident, she has not returned to her father's drink stall, where a new sugar cane juicer sits.

When asked if it is because it reminds her of the accident, she just shrugged and said softly: "I guess."

It is hard to tell that the 16-year-old has any troubles at all. The gregarious girl smiles readily and walks with a spring in her step.

But there are some things she buries deep within herself so she does not worry others.

"I don't let my parents know when I'm upset because I don't want to upset them," she said.

Like many teenagers, Yvonne battles with insecurities due to her physical differences.

"When I'm alone at night, I tend to think a lot, like focus on what I can't do because of my hand injuries.

"I am very conscious of how people look at me (because of my hand)," she said.

She wears a skin-coloured sleeve over her left arm to cover a scar from a skin graft operation. A sleeve on her right hand hides the parts where her fingers were severed.

When asked if she minds the scar, she simply said: "I don't think I even have a choice."

It took more than a month for her to learn how to write with her left hand.

"The process turned out to be not as bad. It's just that the words are all crooked and messy.

"Everything is difficult for the first time. It takes time to get used to it. You just need to practise," she said.

She added that she became slower in completing her work.

"I really can't stand messy work. So if my words look crooked, I will rewrite," she explained.

Yvonne was given more time - 25 per cent of each paper's duration - to complete her exams, including the N levels.

She is grateful to her family, friends and teachers for being caring and supportive.

When she was hospitalised, she was showered with well wishes and origami cranes - a way to pray for good health according to Japanese legend.

Her parents never pressured her when it came to studies.


Yvonne said she has grown closer to her older siblings through this incident. She has a sister, 18, who has just completed her A levels, and a brother, 19, who is waiting for enlistment.

"I think we started talking a lot more. There wasn't that much to do in the hospital other than talk," Yvonne said with a laugh.

Her form teacher Ms Suvenna Tan, 28, called her resilience amazing.

She said: "At first, we were worried about how she would be able to cope, especially (as) she is at the age where image is very important.

"But she surprised all of us because she was very determined. She kept telling us not to help her because she wants to try on her own."

She added: "From there, nothing can stop her. Resilience is a character trait that really brings people forward and I think Yvonne has a lot of that."

To Yvonne's father, Mr Tan Guan An, 51, the 16-year-old will always be the baby, no matter how mature she has become.

"She will always be a child in my eyes. That's how parents see their children," said Mr Tan in Mandarin.

He said he is happy and proud of his daughter for doing well in her N levels.

"When she asked us to guess how many points she scored, my wife even teased her by asking if she scored more than 20 points (and cannot advance to Sec 5).

"Of course I'm proud of her as her father. She did so well despite what happened to her," said Mr Tan.

But more than that, he is comforted to see Yvonne confront her difficulties instead of shying away.

"I'm glad she tried to walk out of the trauma of the accident. She is back to her normal self, smiling most of the time, and is very involved with school activities.

"Seeing her try to move on, I'm very comforted," he said.


Secondary school student Yvonne Tan Li Xuan, who was 14 years old at the time, was helping out at her father's drink stall in Toa Payoh on Dec 22, 2013, when her right hand got caught in a sugar cane juicer.

She had been trying to dislodge a piece of sugar cane that was stuck in the juicer.

The machine severed her right index and middle fingers, and also crushed her thumb.

She went through an operation to transplant one of her toes to save her partially severed thumb. This was to allow her to hold things with her right hand.

Doctors also performed two skin grafts to repair the skin, which was left badly lacerated by the accident.

On Yvonne's left arm, which was one of the sites doctors took a skin graft from, is a scar that she covers with a skin-coloured sleeve.

As she is right-handed, she went through physiotherapy to learn how to go about daily activities with her left hand.


While she was still in the hospital, Yvonne received a surprise visit from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (above, seated), who is a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio, where Yvonne lives.

There, Mr Lee shared with her an inspiring tale of US civil war veteran John Wesley Powell, who lost an arm in the war, but went on to lead an expedition down the Colorado River and discover the Grand Canyon.

Yvonne was discharged a month later on Jan 22, 2014.

In February, the Guangyang Secondary student returned to school and, later that year, went on an overseas trip to Vietnam with the school. 



This article was first published on Dec 19, 2015.
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