Celeb chef paralysed after bike accident walks, talks again

At 39, Mr Muhammad Haikal Johari was a successful chef in his own right.

Less than a year ago, the Singaporean was at the top of his game.

He had worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and was hailed as a celebrity chef in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had been based for 10 years.

All that changed last October when he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident in Pattaya, Thailand.

The accident left him paralysed from the neck down.

"It was a very serious injury. Yet, my injuries could have been a lot more complicated," he told The New Paper.

Six months after the accident, Mr Haikal has made much progress. But he continues to wish the accident had never happened.

WAS IT ALL A DREAM?

"You know how you sometimes think that this is just a dream, that you can just sleep, wake up and you are back at the same old place? But it wasn't. So (being in) the intensive care unit (ICU) was pretty hard. It struck me that this is for real.

"Even now, I still feel that this is just a dream, that one day I will sleep and the next day I'm back in Bangkok again," said Mr Haikal, who has returned to Singapore.

He is now learning to walk again - just like a baby, he added.

"I'm feeling more confident. I'm beginning to sit, stand and walk with assistance, which is something I never thought I could do six months ago."

THE ACCIDENT

Memories of the accident are scant.

All he remembers is making his way to a bike circuit for a riding session on his Yamaha R1 motorcycle.

"When I woke up... I didn't know I was in an accident so all I saw were white lights. I thought I was still sleeping, until I saw my family...

"That's when I realised I could not move and the doctor said, 'Mr Muhammad, you have to be strong'. That's all I heard."

That was in Pattaya, where he was first admitted to a hospital.

Doctors diagnosed him with a spinal cord injury at the C3 and C4 level. These refer to cervical bones in the spine, which start with C1 at the top of the spine.

Other than being paralysed from the neck down, Mr Haikal was unable to speak and had to rely on a ventilator to breathe.

After a week in Pattaya, he was flown home to Singapore. He was admitted to the ICU at the National University Hospital for nine days.

FIGHTING NEGATIVITY

Another nine days were spent in the high-dependency ward before he was transferred to a normal ward.

"From that point until now, I've never told myself I won't move again. The thought of being paralysed was never in my mind. I always thought it was just temporary, this is just a transition for me to get better," he said.

But sometimes, negativity got the better of him.

Choking up, Mr Haikal said: "On some nights, there were complications which (made me think) I couldn't breathe any more. I told my wife, 'Please stay with me. I'm afraid I will not live another day'."

He had a tracheal tube then, which often clogged up with phlegm, making it difficult for him to breathe, he explained.

He conceded that there were also nights when he wished someone would pull the plug on him.

But his wife, Madam Rafiqah Soh, 39, with whom he has an eight-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, told him firmly: "Papa, you have to go on because your kids are very young. They need you."

FAMILY MATTERS

His family's constant support throughout this difficult period also made him realise how he had neglected his family over the past 10 years.

When he was based in Bangkok, the self-professed workaholic would fly home for only a few days every two to three months to spend time with his family before zipping back to his job.

"The longest leave that I had taken was when we went as a family to Hokkaido for 10 days. In 10 years...that's very, very little (time spent together).

"All the time, I had only thought about working," Mr Haikal said, adding that he was focused on establishing himself as a prominent chef.

Madam Soh, who quietly observed this interview, teared as her husband talked about the importance of family.

The housewife later explained: "After all these years, finally at this moment, he realised that family is very important... This is what I used to always remind him, but because he's such a workaholic, these things didn't actually enter his mind."

Mr Haikal was discharged from the NUH's Rehabilitation Centre last Friday and will return for regular follow-up physiotherapy sessions.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

He credits his recovery to senior physiotherapist Suresh Ramaswamy, 39, whom he met at the centre.

"He told me the degree of my injury. But he told me not to lose hope, to work things out and see how far we can go. It's nice for someone to just explain things to me, even what to eat... That was the first step on the road to recovery," said Mr Haikal.

Mr Suresh instils so much confidence in him that it prompted Madam Soh to say jokingly: "You can bring Suresh home with you."

Mr Suresh, in turn, pointed to Mr Haikal's positivity and determination, and his wife's support as reasons for his recovery.

"The most important thing is that his wife is his inspiration. She's always at his bedside and always ready to tell him, 'Okay let's do it'. That's another positive point that has helped us to move every step," Mr Suresh said.

The road to recovery is still uncertain. Although Mr Haikal can walk very slowly with assistance, he is still unable to move his arms or control his hands.

"I can't move my hands and those are what you need as a chef... But my wife told me, 'Don't worry, your brains are still intact, you can still do things'."

Mr Haikal was the head chef of Seed, a Western fusion restaurant in Bangkok, when the accident happened. Today, he is still in touch with the restaurant to oversee the menus.

"At this point, I don't really cook any more. It's more of planning the kitchen, opening the restaurant, stuff like that."

1 in 3 may regain movement after spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injuries are classified according to the section of the nerves affected. For Mr Muhammad Haikal Johari, 39, the high cervical nerves - at C3 and C4 vertebrae - were affected.

Initially, he could not move his body from the neck down. He was unable to speak and had to rely on a ventilator to breathe.

Dr Hee Hwan Tak, medical director and senior consultant at Pinnacle Spine & Scoliosis Centre, said: "Any spinal cord injury that involves C3 and upwards will knock off the phrenic nerve responsible for breathing. Thus, there will be inability to breathe spontaneously."

A patient with a complete C4 level of injury means he is unable to move his limbs, said Dr Hee.

For those with a C3 and C4 level of spinal cord injury, the chance of regaining motor skills depends on the degree of the functional impairment caused by the injury.

Dr Hee said: "If the paralysis is partial - some retention of sensation and motor power - there is a chance that he or she will regain useful nerve function."

According to research papers, only 30 to 35 per cent of spinal cord injury patients may be able to recover their functional movements a year after the injury.

Six months after the accident, Mr Haikal can sit up on his own, speaks without difficulty, and is slowly walking with assistance.

His physiotherapist, Mr Suresh Ramaswamy, expects him to walk without assistance in about four months.

fjieying@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 25, 2016.
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