Minimart owner loses finger to frostbite in Clementi

Mr Ng Hoe Ghee pointing to the freezer he was cleaning when he got frostbite. With him is his second daughter, Tarine.
PHOTO: Minimart owner loses finger to frostbite in Clementi

A man has lost his finger to frostbite in tropical Singapore.

In a rush for time, the minimart owner had forgotten to turn off an ice cream freezer before cleaning it.

The middle finger of his left hand got so infected by the frostbite that doctors had to amputate it.

On Dec 6 last year, Mr Ng Hoe Ghee was expecting a delivery of ice cream at his two-month-old minimart at Clementi Street 13.

His wife had called from their supplier's shop in Sims Avenue to tell him that she would be back with potong ice cream (a traditional type of ice cream) in about half an hour and that he should clear out the freezer.

Speaking to The New Paper at his minimart on Monday, the 42-year-old father of four said he would usually switch off the machine and allow the ice to melt before cleaning it.

IN A RUSH

But there was no time to lose that day, so he got down to work with a paint scraper and hammer.

He said: "I starting scraping the ice that had built up at the sides and bottom of the freezer. Then I used my hands to scoop the ice into a container to remove it."

It took about 25 minutes to clean out the ice.

His left middle finger felt numb at the end and looked pale, but Mr Ng did not think too much about it.

"I thought that since it was not painful, it would probably go away after a while," he said.

He was not aware that he had suffered frostbite. 

Two days later, not only did the numbness not go away, but his finger started swelling.

By Dec 11, it was "about the size of a big lollipop".

There was a large blister filled with pus on his finger. Not wanting to go to a doctor, Mr Ng simply punctured the "blister" to drain the pus and blood. He then applied some Chinese medicated oil.

"For two days after that, the swelling went down," he said.

Then the pain started. His finger swelled up again and took on a dark purplish tinge.

But a family medical emergency and running his minimart kept him busy and he did not seek medical help.

"While visiting my cousin in hospital, I covered my hand with a glove so it wouldn't look too scary. Though I was in pain, I thought I could just take some Panadol and get over it," Mr Ng said.

On Dec 16, at about 5.30pm, he went to a nearby general practitioner. He was told to go to the hospital immediately.

At the Accident & Emergency Department of Singapore General Hospital (SGH), Mr Ng was told he needed to undergo emergency surgery as his blood sugar levels were through the roof and his finger had turned gangrenous.

Four operations and an aggressive course of antibiotics later, he now has a 5cm stump where his middle finger used to be.

During his 12-day stay at the SGH, Mr Ng was told by doctors that he had suffered frostbite while cleaning his freezer.

GANGRENE DUE TO DELAY

His finger had become affected by gangrene because he had not sought immediate medical treatment.

He also found out that he has Type 2 diabetes, which hampered his body's ability to heal itself, worsening the injury.

When TNP visited Mr Ng, his elder daughter, Ticia, 14, was helping him measure his blood sugar level with a home test kit before giving him his insulin jab.

When asked if she was worried about her father's injury, she said: "Of course, we were worried. Our other shop (in Jalan Bukit Merah) is open 24 hours, so the siblings had to take turns to help out." Mr Ng sees it as a second chance.

"The doctors told me I could have gone into a coma because of my diabetes, or if my blood had got infected by the gangrene," he said.

"While I lost a finger, as least I kept my life. It was a stupid mistake, but I get to live."

How did it turn bad so quickly?

Although frostbite is common in colder climates, it rarely happens in Singapore. General practitioner Dr Leong Choon Kit of the Mission Clinic in Serangoon, who is trained in public health, explained how this was possible and what led to Mr Ng Hoe Ghee needing to have his finger amputated.

FROSTBITE

"This usually occurs in a very cold environment where one's blood vessels get smaller and there is not enough blood flowing through to bring oxygen to the tissues," Dr Leong said.

After a period of restricted blood flow, cell tissues die, leading to frostbite.

He said that other reasons such as high cholesterol can also contribute to one's blood vessels getting constricted.

DIABETES

"While there's a low chance that diabetes had caused the infection in his finger, the condition hampers the body from healing itself, which could have led to the...gangrene," he said.

The blister and pus on Mr Ng's finger were signs that his body was trying to fight off an infection.

"His amputation came about due to a combination of factors.

"It probably wasn't so serious in the beginning, but his delay in seeking medical treatment, combined with his health problems, formed the 'perfect storm'," said Dr Leong.

His mum inspired him to help stranger

During his stay in the Singapore General Hospital, Mr Ng Hoe Ghee was warded next to Malaysian Patrick Ooi.

While chatting with Mr Ooi, he found out that the 40-year-old, who was here on holiday with his family, had shattered his knee after he was hit by a car on Christmas Day.

He was on his way to buy buns at Teck Kee Tanglin Pau in Outram Road, which was highly recommended by the cabby who had driven them from the airport.

His wife and two-year-old daughter were resting in the hotel when the accident happened in the early afternoon.

BAD START

Mr Ng said: "They were supposed to spend Christmas and New Year's Day here, but their holiday had such a bad start. So I wanted to help in whatever way possible."

He got his wife to buy the buns for the Oois. Then he took Mrs Ooi and her mother-in-law on a mini excursion after he was discharged on Dec 29.

"Mr Ooi's mother had flown in from Malaysia to care for him. She looked so tense and worried. So I thought, why not take her to the temple in Waterloo Street to pray?"

After 45 minutes at the temple, the elder Mrs Ooi was "a changed woman" who was laughing and joking with the group, said Mr Ng.

They then went to Mustafa Centre in Little India, where the Oois bought souvenirs while he got a blood glucose meter.

Asked why he had helped the strangers despite being in pain, Mr Ng said: "It's the way I live my life."

Breaking down for the first time during the interview, Mr Ng said he was inspired by his mother, who died suddenly seven years ago at the age of 63.

"She always gave as much as she could without expecting anything in return. And this is the way I hope to carry on her legacy," he said.


This article was first published on Jan 07, 2015.
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