SINGAPORE - Just a few years ago, her sight was failing so badly that she could make out only shadow and light.
Madam Lim Gay Hua, 65, found it tough to run her newspaper kiosk. Speaking in Mandarin, she says: "It was hard to make out outlines. When people paid me, I had to guess by the colour of the notes what denominations they were."
"Coins? Go by feel!"
And yes, there were people who tried to cheat her by walking off without paying.
"Some paid me in Malaysian coins, which are worth only a fraction," says Madam Lim.
But she could not just up and leave. The kiosk, which she runs at Block 339 Ang Mo Kio St 31, was and is the only source of income to support her and her grandson.
When The New Paper documented her story more than two years ago, her grandson Chen Cher Yong was a mere seven-year-old who had been roped in to help her.
Acting as eyes for his Ah Ma, he would help make change for customers.
He never complained. Instead, he played with his toys and napped on a makeshift mattress tucked in a corner until it was time to go home at around 11.30pm to their flat in Toa Payoh.
He told TNP then: "Ah Ma can't see. I don't know if anyone's trying to steal from us. So Ah Boy has to look out to make sure nobody takes our money.
"I always protect it properly. Nobody will take it."
When asked about her grandson's involvement in the kiosk, Madam Lim says: "It was us two against the world, you know?"
Her story tugged at Singaporeans' heartstrings when it was published in this newspaper two years ago. People wanted to help.
Among them was Dr Leo Seo Wei, 41.
The ophthalmologist in private practice was touched by the story.
"I felt that I could help her. I had to do something," Dr Leo says.
But when she went to the kiosk, Madam Lim was not around.
Refusing to give up, Dr Leo got in touch with the grassroots leaders in Ang Mo Kio and eventually found out where Madam Lim lived.
"I remember that day clearly. We were on the way to her home. The sky was overcast, everything was grey and it was raining buckets.
The scene reminded me of the old black-and-white Cantonese movies on television and I was certain we wouldn't find her," says the doctor.
And the portents turned out to be true - Madam Lim was not home.
Although disappointed, Dr Leo made the grassroots leaders promise to take Madam Lim to her clinic for a consultation "at least". A month later, they turned up with Madam Lim and Cher Yong in tow.
The blindness was, in fact, a case of cataracts. It was a severe case but was still treatable.
But Madam Lim had to be convinced to go for the operation to remove her cataracts.
"I waived my fees, so did the anaesthetist. I even convinced Mount Elizabeth Hospital to let me use the operating theatre free of charge. Everything was booked and everyone was ready to go," says Dr Leo.
That was in January last year.
"But Madam Lim was a no-show," Dr Leo says. "I should have known she was afraid."
Madam Lim was afraid that she would not come back from the operating table.
"Who would look after my grandson?" she recalls.
She was also extremely worried about finances and did not want to burden anyone, especially for money for follow-up care and consultation.
But another good soul turned up.
Ms Christine Goh, a social worker with the Care Corner Family Service Centre (Toa Payoh) cajoled and sometimes even nagged Madam Lim for a full year before the latter finally relented.
Dr Leo says: "I was elated but at the same time, doubtful."
The hospital agreed, once again, to waive its fees for the operating theatre and ward.
On Feb 17 this year, Dr Leo operated on Madam Lim's left eye and a week later, her right eye.
But the work to restore Madam Lim's sight did not end there.
"She had to administer eye drops regularly post-operation to ensure there was no infection. I was worried she might forget," says Dr Leo.
So the doctor and social worker hatched a plan to involve Madam Lim's grandson, tenant, neighbours and shopkeepers near her home to remind her to apply the medication.
And they readily agreed. Each day, they reminded Madam Lim about the drops whenever they saw her.
Some even helped her apply the medicine.
Dr Leo says with a satisfied smile: "You know the proverb 'It takes a whole village to raise a child'? In this case, a village got together to make sure Madam Lim had her sight back."
A hairdresser, who operates at the foot of Madam Lim's block and did not want to be named, says: "Anyone would have helped. I just did what I could."
A grocer nearby, who also did not want to be named, says: "She's been living in my area for so long. She's a long-time customer. What I can do, I will do."
Smiling broadly, Madam Lim admits that she used the eye drops conscientiously because of the care and concern that her neighbours showed her.
"I'm so grateful, they all cared," she says.
These days, her vision is so sharp that she spots my eyebags from afar and tells me that I need more sleep.
She is also grateful that her grandson can spend more time in enrichment classes because of her improved vision. Cher Yong now goes to after-school care till 6pm on weekdays.
But he still opts to keep her company on most weeknights, and does his schoolwork while she runs the store.
The shopkeepers near Madam Lim's kiosk all sing praises of Cher Yong, noting how filial and protective he is of his grandmother.
When approached for this interview, the 10-year-old was shy and did not say much.
But he does tell Ms Goh: "Ah Ma took care of me. I must take care of her."
Help for Madam Lim & grandson
Seven years ago, when Madam Lim Gay Hua's family had problems paying their household bills, the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) stepped in to provide financial aid.
Today, Madam Lim, 65, is able to cope financially by renting a room in her HDB flat to a couple from Myanmar and through the income from her newspaper stand.
She lives with grandson Chen Cher Yong, nine, in an HDB flat at Lorong 8 Toa Payoh. They have been together since his mother left for Malaysia in 2007.
Cher Yong's mother has recently started visiting on weekends, sometimes taking him to Malaysia with her.
"There are times the weekends would extend into weekdays, something we are trying to discourage as it affects his education," Ms Christine Goh, a social worker from the Care Corner Family Service Centre (Toa Payoh), says.
Cher Yong has been placed in after-school care, where he is supervised and coached every day in school work.
"He takes a bus to his grandmother's stall in the evening, arriving at about 6pm to help her," Ms Goh says.
The centre is helping Cher Yong apply for higher subsidies for his after-school care arrangements.
"We also got him on The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund as well as the Education Ministry's financial assistance scheme," Ms Goh says.
Under the ministry's financial assistance scheme, Cher Yong gets a full waiver of miscellaneous fees.
What is a cataract?
A cataract is a medical condition in which the lens of the eye becomes progressively opaque, resulting in blurred vision.
Cataracts are common in the elderly due to ageing. A recent Tanjong Pagar study by the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) found that more than eight in 10 people aged 60 and above have some form of cataract.
Prolonged ultraviolet light exposure, long-term use of medication such as steroids and certain conditions like diabetes are also risk factors for its development.
In the young, cataracts can be present at birth or because of injury.
The first sign of cataracts is usually the blurring of vision.
- Frequent change of glasses due to increasing short-sightedness in adults
- Colours appear dull
- Poor vision in bright light
- Haloes around lights
- Difficulty reading or watching television or driving at night.
Treatment is usually surgical and an outpatient procedure which takes an hour or less to perform.
During the operation, the clouded lens is removed, and a clear artificial lens is implanted.
The patient is given eye drops for about a month to prevent infection and reduce inflammation.
Source: SNEC, Mayo Clinic
This article was published first in The New Paper.
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