Boy, 7, can't walk or talk due to anoxic brain injury after near-drowning

Like most seven-year-old boys, Syahriz Matin Abdul Halim could run around for hours and not feel tired.

But after almost drowning in a swimming pool last month, he is now "almost like a vegetable", said his father, Mr Abdul Halim Abdul Haziz.

Syahriz is at KK Women's And Children's Hospital, fidgeting uncontrollably due to muscle spasms.

He cannot talk, walk or swallow food due to anoxic brain injury, caused by a lack of oxygen to his brain.

His parents hug and kiss him, but Syahriz merely reciprocates with a distant gaze and a slight frown.

"He doesn't recognise us. He was not like this before (the incident)," Mr Halim, a 38-year-old technician, said before turning his attention back to Syahriz and held his little hand.

He has another son, three, and a daughter, 11. His wife is three months pregnant with their fourth child.

With much difficulty and reluctance, he told The New Paper briefly about the Oct 11 incident, which he said still traumatises him.

It was a family gathering and the children were playing in a swimming pool. Mr Halim declined to reveal the location, except that it was a private pool.

Among the children was Syahriz, who does not know how to swim. The tragedy happened after Mr Halim stepped out for a few minutes.

"I heard someone scream Syahriz's name and I ran back quickly. All I saw was my son floating in the pool, motionless," he said, hand clutching his forehead.

"I can't really remember anything else because I was not there when he almost drowned, except that he no longer moved.

"It was heartbreaking."

By the time Mr Halim got back to the pool, his brother-in-law had jumped in to save Shahriz. A lifeguard appeared shortly after and administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"He still had a pulse but he was no longer breathing. He was near the lifeguard chair, but where was the lifeguard when he almost drowned?" Mr Halim said.

In Singapore, it is not mandatory to have lifeguards stationed at swimming pools, said Singapore Life Saving Society president Richard Tan.

The next few hours for Mr Halim and his wife were spent in uncertainty as doctors battled to save their son.

"We had no idea if our son was still alive. All the doctors said was that they would try their best," he said.

"Syahriz was put on life support for a few days before he started breathing again."

Just when he thought Syahriz had crossed a hurdle, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan showed that the boy has anoxic brain injury, with damaged cells at the top and back of his brain.

AFFECTED

As a result, Syahriz's vision and motor skills are affected. He is no longer the lively and energetic boy that his parents knew.

"When the doctor broke the news, I was speechless and didn't know what to ask him. I just gave him a blank stare," Mr Halim recalled.

Syahriz now goes through an hour of occupational therapy and another hour of physiotherapy every day. He also takes medicine to prevent seizures.

"The doctors said that other aspects of recovery will depend on his willpower," Mr Halim said.

He and his wife, who has taken six months of unpaid leave from her admin job, take turns to stay by their son's side.

They read his favourite books to him, talk to him and try to stimulate his fingers by wrapping them around his favourite PlayStation controller.

"For more than a month now, I just sit there (by my son's bed), waiting," said Mr Halim.

"I don't know when I would break down. Each time I pray for my son, I cry. I have run out of tears."

Support from relatives and his faith have helped him get through the past month.

"I am hopeful that he will wake up. But I can't just sit there and be hopeful," he said.

Mr Halim set up a crowd-funding initiative this week to raise money so he can seek treatment for Syahriz in a US hospital, which he feels is better equipped to help young patients like his son.

"Even if I have to be on my knees and beg, I will try," he said.

"I know it's not a 100 per cent recovery rate but even if it's just a 1 per cent chance, I still want to try.

"As a parent, I have to go all out."

BETTER RECOVERY CHANCE IN YOUNGER PATIENTS

Anoxic brain injury can be caused by the lack of oxygen in the blood due to drowning or choking, as well as the lack of blood flow to the brain due to heart problems or strokes.

Younger patients such as Syahriz Matin Abdul Halim, seven, have a higher chance of recovering from anoxic brain injury as a younger brain is more compliant, said Dr Charles Siow.

While it is difficult to put a figure to the duration one's brain can last without oxygen, the neurologist at Siow Neurology, Headache And Pain Centres said brain cells generally start to die after three minutes of oxygen being cut off.

"It's very hard to say exactly how long because when you see someone drowning, you don't know how long he has been there and you're not going to start timing. The first instinct is to save him," he said.

"But of course, the longer the oxygen is cut off from the brain, the greater the degree of injury."

The prognosis varies from patient to patient and the recovery time can range from months to years.

"It's still early days and with proper care, rehabilitation and physiotherapy, Syahriz may make a decent recovery," added Dr Siow.

"But the fact that he survived is a really good thing."

DROWNING IS A SILENT KILLER

There is no law in Singapore to say that all swimming pools must have lifeguards.

But it is something Singapore Life Saving Society president Richard Tan has been pushing for passionately.

"I have written in to the media many times to say that if you are a pool owner, you should have lifeguards," he said.

He believes that pool users' safety is an overlapping responsibility between the users and the pool owner.

"One of the things people always do is that when something bad happens, it is always someone else's fault," he said.

"But everyone has a part to play. We can't just say that because the pool has no lifeguard, the owners are at fault (when a drowning occurs)."

Many drowning cases occur within 3m of someone, but people often do not realise it because it is a silent killer.

Mr Tan said: "I've seen videos of people drowning seconds before they are saved by lifeguards.

"It is no different from other kids playing in the pool, but actually they are struggling to get out of water.

"They can't scream as their primary objective is to breathe.

"Every safety measure helps to reduce the risk of drowning and everyone has a part to play."

Drowning cases

2012:

Accidental drowning: 28

Suicidal drowning: 12

Open finding drowning (where the reason could not be determined by the coroner): 7

2013:

Accidental drowning: 11

Suicidal drowning: 11

Open finding drowning: 8

2014:

Accidental drowning: 10

Suicidal drowning: 17

Open finding drowning: 8

Source: Singapore Life Saving Society


This article was first published on November 20, 2015.
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