'My classmates wouldn't play with me because I smelled'

PHOTO: 'My classmates wouldn't play with me because I smelled'

SINGAPORE - THREE times a week, Mr Richard Tay spends four hours hooked up to a dialysis machine.

And he has been doing that with the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) for the last 30 years, making him the longest-surviving kidney patient in Singapore.

While some may bemoan such a gruelling medical regimen, Mr Tay, 50, sees the dialysis as a way to let him achieve what he wants in life.

He told The New Paper: "I'm buying time with dialysis. And I make full use of the time I get.

Otherwise, what is the point of having this life when you are not doing something productive?"

To Mr Tay, being productive includes growing a new business venture for his company.

Mr Tay, the sales director of medical equipment supplier Equip Medical, plans to set up a branch office in Vietnam, following successful ventures in Malaysia and Thailand.

"My work is what keeps me going," he said.

As long as he needs dialysis, he has to continue working, he said.

He is also looking after his mother, Madam Tan Yoke Thin, 92, who is stricken with dementia and also has to be fed through her nose.

Mr Tay, who is the 10th of 12 siblings, has a maid to help him. He said: "I don't want her (his mother) to go to a nursing home. It is time for me to look after her. She looked after me (when I was young), so it is just fair."

Birth defect

His mother spent the last few months of her pregnancy behind bars for an illegal betting offence.

She gave birth to him while she was in jail in 1961.

Mr Tay was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the brain and spinal cord or its coverings did not form completely.

As a result, he suffered urinary problems. By the time he was 10 months old, he could not urinate.

So a catheter was inserted into his bladder through his abdomen so that he could relieve himself.

He spent the next six years in a hospital, except on festive occasions.

He said: "During one Chinese New Year, the catheter fell out. There were no doctors around. By the time I went back to the hospital, the hole had closed up. The doctors couldn't put the catheter back. So they had to operate (on ) me (to let urine out)."

Isolated in school

Isolated in school

He claimed that a muscle was severed in the process and as a result, he could not control his bladder. When he entered Primary 1, he had to take at least an extra pair of pants to school as he constantly wet himself.

He spent most of his school years in isolation.

"My schoolmates wouldn't play with me because I smelled. They shunned me," he said.

When he was in Secondary 3, he went for acupuncture to help him regain control of his bladder. He said it was a bad move.

He said: "The muscle control was better but that caused the urine to backflow into the kidney. That was how my kidney failed."

It slowly led to complete kidney failure, and he experienced symptoms like fatigue and swelling along the way.

He said: "I felt very lethargic and sleepy then. Even when I slept for 12 hours, I still felt sleepy. Furthermore, my haemoglobin count was low."

The last straw came during his final year of electrical engineering studies at Singapore Polytechnic in 1980. He was 19 then.

"One day, I had chest pain and was put on dialysis right away to get rid of excess water in my body," he said.

About two to three months later, doctors suggested he go for permanent dialysis. But he refused, saying he had to go for his final-year examination. Nine days before the exam, he left the hospital and went home.

"I lost weight. From 140 pounds (63.5kg), I went down to 99 pounds," he said.

After the exams, he was readmitted.

Mr Tay was then put on continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD)at home. His family paid for his monthly $1,200 dialysis fees. He could not get a job then and gave private tuition instead.

Five years later, CAPD failed and he had to go for haemodialysis as his "peritoneal membrane had become thicker".

In 1985, he was put on a five-year trial for self-dialysis, where he had to do everything himself.

"I had to needle myself, hook myself up to the dialysis machine and after the session, wash and disinfect the tubes," he said.

It was hard for him then as he also suffered from low blood pressure. He said: "The first dialysis session took the whole day, from 6am to 7pm."

When NKF changed the system, nurses took over the work and have been doing so since then.

Despite having gone through so much, Mr Tay worked hard and was promoted from sales representative to sales director at Equip Medical.

He attributed his success to family support, especially his elder brother, Mr Jimmy Tay, 57. Said Mr Tay: "He's always there for me. Not only financially, but also when I'm not well - he's been very supportive."

Looking forward, he the time for dialysis can be reduced so that "I can have more time for other things".


This article was first published in The New Paper.