His heart throbs within me

PHOTO: His heart throbs within me

SINGAPORE - Few women have more reason to be smitten by a man than Miss Tan Chwee Suan.

In her wallet is a treasured passport-sized photo of a man she has never met. It is a picture she has carried for 20 years.

He is not the man she wants to marry, or the one that got away. He is not some dreamy celebrity.

He is, literally, her heart-throb, the one whose heart beats within her.

It is his transplanted heart that has allowed her to continue living, and represents hope with each passing day.

"Every night before I close my eyes to sleep," she told The New Paper on Sunday, "I wonder if I will wake up the next day.

"And when I open my eyes and find myself breathing the next morning, I thank God for another day to live."

There is good reason for her apprehension and gratitude. What we take for granted, she sees as a miraculous gift. Her heart wasn't supposed to last beyond 20 years.

Last month, Aug 22 to be precise, was supposed to be its "use-by" date.

When she received the heart, doctors warned her that it would stop beating after 20 years.

Yet it continues to be active, its every beat bringing hope.

In 1991, Miss Tan, now 50, became Singapore's first woman heart transplant patient. She received her transplant at the National Heart Centre.

"At my next visit to the doctor, I will ask the doctor again how much more time I have," she adds jokingly in a mixture of Mandarin and Hokkien.

With each passing day, Miss Tan gets more breathless and feels her heartbeat weakening.

On 2 Sept 2009, she had a pacemaker installed.

It helps to regulate the beating of her heart.

Life was a challenge

For her, life was a challenge even before her heart began to die. At 18, in 1978, she lost a leg to bone cancer.

After the amputation, Miss Tan was on chemotherapy for five years. Unfortunately, the drugs for her bone cancer gave her congestive heart failure.

When Miss Tan found out about her heart problem in 1987, her mother was recovering from a stroke.

Her dad had died in 1984.

Miss Tan was told that she would not be able to live without a new heart. Still, when a heart became available a year later, she rejected it.

Miss Tan feared that if the operation went wrong, there would be no one to care for her bedridden mother.

Her mother died in 1989, a few months after Miss Tan rejected the heart.

In 1991, Miss Tan got her second chance at a heart transplant. Initially, she rejected it again.

"I was afraid that the heart may not be suitable and I would not be able to take care of myself after the operation," she recalled.

"But the doctor told me that if I didn't go for the heart transplant, I would live for only about a year. A new heart would let me live another 20 years."

A new lease of life

A new leaseĀ of life

Miss Tan decided to accept the new heart.

She later found out that it was from a 27-year-old man who had died from a brain haemorrhage.

She has been so grateful to this mystery man that she has kept his photo in her wallet ever since she cut it out from his obituary in the newspaper.

Miss Tan says: "The doctor never told me who the donor was, but I searched newspaper obituary pages and found out that this man died on the same day I had received my heart.

"A few months later, I saw another newspaper report on the coroner's inquiry into his death, which mentioned that he had donated his organs, including his heart."

That convinced her that this was the man who saved her.

It wasn't smooth sailing after the heart transplant. She fought hard to survive.

At 1.47m tall and weighing just over 32kg, Miss Tan looks shrivelled. The signs of ageing clearly showed on her face when we met her last week.

But she remains grateful for her life, even if others might not think much of it.

To save money, she takes the bus instead of a taxi whenever she goes out.

In April this year, Miss Tan was seriously injured after she tripped and fell into a drain while walking to the bus stop on her crutches.

"My face was so swollen and bleeding from the fall. A kind passer-by helped me up and called for an ambulance to take me to hospital," she recalled.

"The doctor wanted me to undergo surgery as my right eye socket was fractured. But I opted for natural recovery as I was afraid that the operation would cost too much."

Miss Tan endured the pain on her face for close to two months before she recovered fully from the fall.

A blessed life

A blessed life

She is blessed, she says.

"I am so blessed to be living and working. Happiness is being able to work and earn my own living," she says.

She is a book binder and earns $760 a month.

"I would be miserable if I can't work and have to depend on others."

She has been working in the same job for 29 years.

It is her religious faith that she says has helped to hold her life together.

Miss Tan was born to a trishaw rider. Her mother was a housewife.

The sixth child in a family of nine, Miss Tan started working as a helper at a hawker stall at 16.

Four years after she lost her leg, she took the job at the Society for the Physically Disabled.

Life has not changed much for Miss Tan since.

Five days a week, she wakes up at 5.30am and gets ready to go to work. Breakfast is often just cream crackers and coffee.

At 6.45am, she leaves home on her crutches to wait for her employer's van to pick her up. She reaches her workplace around 7.30am. Her working hours are from 8am to 5.30pm.

She is grateful for her job and an understanding employer who gives her time off to go for her physiotherapy sessions at the National Heart Centre on Tuesday mornings.

With the higher cost of living, Miss Tan tries to stretch her dollar by skipping dinner on some days.

She leads a frugal life, sharing a rented one-room HDB flat in Mei Ling Street with her older brother.

Holidays are simply beyond her means. She is satisfied with seeing the world through the screen of her new 32-inch TV set at home.

"I paid $399 for the TV on Sept 4," Miss Tan said.

"I bought it when the old one given by my sister broke down. Until now, I still feel the pain in my heart. Just one more dollar and it would be $400 for a TV."

Envious no longer

Envious no longer

Miss Tan has learned not to envy others who have much more than her.

She said: "I used to envy people who are married with kids. I wished I could have my own family too. And when I saw someone driving a nice sports car, I felt that life was so unfair. Why wasn't I born with a silver spoon like them?

"But I no longer feel this way now. I have stopped envying others and have learnt to be happy with my life."

And Miss Tan has no regrets in life. Not even when she gave up her chance at love.

A colleague had shown affection and they had gone on a movie date together. But Miss Tan decided not to develop the relationship because she did not want to end up becoming a burden to him.

The colleague has since died.

No regrets, Miss Tan says. All she wishes for now is to be able to live for another five years.

And how would she want her life to be different?

"My life would be the same. Nothing would change. I am just happy to be living."

This article was first published in The New Paper.