To have and to hold,in sickness and in health

To have and to hold,in sickness and in health
Dr Miranda Yap, a founding mother of biotech, died on October 14, 2015. She suffered an aneurysm on the golf course, and had since remained bedridden and was largely unresponsive.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Every morning for four years, retired lecturer Yap Kian Tiong dutifully cleared phlegm from his bed-ridden wife's throat with a suction machine, checked to see if her eyes were watery and massaged her.

He literally provided her support as she went about her daily 90-minute physiotherapy. "She was heavy and it was a rigorous process," said Professor Yap.

On Prof Yap's 66th birthday on Oct 14, his wife, Prof Miranda Yap, the first woman to win Singapore's top honours in science and technology, died in his arms. She had turned 67 two months earlier.

Dr Yap recounted to The Straits Times how their lives changed when an aneurysm struck his wife as she was playing golf in 2011.

"She was no longer a person," he said. "Her eyes were unfocused. When I talk to her, there was no response. She was just lying there."

He became her primary caregiver after her stroke, taking care of her every need. "When you love someone, you want the best care for her," he said. "It's a lot more work because it takes heart."

After she fell ill, Dr Yap sang to his wife, consoled and talked to her, hoping that she would one day regain her speech. Hours slipped into days before they became years.

"I only wanted her to be able to say yes or no. She was uttering, groaning, but there was no meaningful speech," he said. He was never sure if his wife was aware when he propped her up for her physiotherapy or stroked her hair.

She was a shadow of the person he first met on the Ministry of Defence tennis courts in 1976. "I was doing my reservist (training)," he said. "She loved tennis and I had access to (the) courts."

He remembers their first meeting. "Have you ever met a girl and known straight away that she's the one?" he asked.

They became tennis buddies. A couple of months later, Miranda announced that she was going to move to Toronto, Canada, for her doctorate. He said: "I told myself, forget it. She's already going."

But he, too, was due to leave to do his doctorate in Wisconsin, in the US. It was not far from Toronto, he decided, so one day in 1979 he visited her. "We were just friends, not dating," he said, lightly brushing it off.

After Prof Yap returned to the US, he decided to pursue her through letters ("That time, no e-mail, no WhatsApp, so hard to form relationships") and the couple got engaged in 1981. Later that year, they married in Wisconsin.

The newly-weds returned to Singapore in 1983. He pursued his career in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) while she started work at the National University of Singapore. They planned holidays together, visiting places like New Zealand and Mount Everest. "We had a full life. We travelled with friends all over the world," he said.

Their marital bliss, however, gradually eroded as Prof Miranda Yap took on more work responsibilities. She eventually became the founding executive director of the Bioprocessing Technology Institute, now part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

"(Her career) put a strain on our marriage," he said. "She was at the peak of her career. She came back very late, after I was asleep, and left very early, before I woke."

When she could, she planned family gatherings but he never participated in her work life. When she won the President's Science and Technology Medal in 2009, she asked her husband if he wanted to receive it with her at the Istana.

"She said, 'Kian, they are inviting you as well. Do you want to come? You don't have to if you don't want to.' She said that because she knew how I would feel. She, being the lady, winning this prestigious award, and I being a zero man," said Prof Yap, who taught at NTU for 23 years. He did not go because he had "zero attendance" at any of her work functions, and he "did not know if (he) was going to start".

"I should have been more open. After meeting all the people (who attended her wake), I realised how much I missed out. Given the chance again, I would be different. I would have done everything she enjoyed, including shoe shopping."

Her thoughtfulness, which Prof Yap dearly misses, is also shown in the family gatherings she organised.

"She made sure to invite a couple of my close friends so I didn't feel left out. Her family is very big. I found out only after she died that she made an effort to make sure there were more of my people," he said. "She was always thinking of me."

His wife's loving ways also taught Prof Yap, whose doctorate is in mechanical and electrical engineering, the biggest lesson of his life: that there's life with people.

He said: "Engineers are not very good with people. But I learnt to be different because of her, thanks to her loving and kind ways."

He is glad that he was not the only one who noticed his wife's good nature; well-wishers told him as much during her three-day wake.

"Of course, she was very bright, brilliant and fast. She was always 20 steps ahead of me. But her success is based on her people-centredness."

Prof Miranda Yap's stroke also forced her husband out of his shell.

"I was very dependent on her. She would do everything for me," he said. "I had to learn to take care of everything."

In August, Prof Miranda Yap started coughing. Thick phlegm congested in her chest. Her doctor told Prof Yap that nurses could help clear his wife's windpipes if she was admitted. But Prof Yap refused, fearing she might catch an infection in the hospital. Furthermore, the couple had a suction machine at home. "I was going to do it for her," he said.

A month later, after her congestion cleared, her condition worsened. Her right eye shut and did not open again. Her left eye was already lifeless after her brain haemorrhage and her legs became less mobile. "It was as if she suffered another stroke," said Prof Yap.

Prof Miranda Yap died after suffering breathing difficulties. She left a hole in her husband's heart that he "doesn't know how to fill".

Religion and their friends from church are keeping him going and he is trying to come to terms with life without her. "The most important hope I had was that she might one day give me the chance to live again the life we used to lead. It's only when I lost her that I realised how much closer we could have been."

This article was first published on December 7, 2015.
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