SINGAPORE - Mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Shahril Salim turned 22 on Tuesday.
To celebrate, his family and friends bought not one, but two chocolate cakes.
But instead of blowing out the candles at a boisterous party, he lay unconscious on a hospital bed at Singapore General Hospital.
Although his eyes open and his fingers curl into tight fists intermittently, Mr Shahril is still in a coma, explains his 29-year-old brother Jufri Salim.
"He may look like he's awake, but he doesn't respond clearly when you speak to him or ask him questions. Doctors are not sure about whether or not the movements are his way of expressing himself or due to involuntary reflexes.
"We didn't sing the birthday song because we weren't sure about how he would feel about us celebrating while he's in this state," Mr Jufri says quietly.
One cake was for the doctors and nurses who have been caring for him the past month. The other, which carried a photo of him in training gear, was for his family and friends, who celebrated in a solemn mood.
Mr Jufri's voice breaks and tears threaten to spill over as he speaks about the youngest of six siblings: "People tell us to be strong, but I can't imagine what he must be feeling inside.
"Perhaps very frustrated... can't scream, can't sit up and tell you how he's feeling, trapped inside his own body."
Mr Shahril was meant to make his debut as a professional boxer at Marina Bay Sands exactly one month ago.
A week before taking the stage, however, he collapsed after a sparring session and was rushed to the hospital for an emergency brain operation.
To relieve the swelling caused by internal bleeding, they had to remove part of his skull. Doctors said they had only about two hours to save his life, says Mr Jufri.
A sense of relief had swept over the family when MrShahril emerged from the operating theatre alive.
But anxiety quickly took over as doctors cautioned them that his life was still in danger. Even if he pulled through the critical phase, the road to recovery will be long and arduous, they added.
A week after his first operation, the promising boxer developed pneumonia, which required a second operation.
Climbing hospital bills and the prospect of high rehabilitation costs loom heavy on the mind of Mr Jufri, who confesses he does feel the occasional bout of guilt for being so encouraging of his brother's pursuit of the sport.
"I've been supportive of his MMA involvement from the start. He's always been supportive of my music and attended my gigs. It's not like he was into gangs or street fights," says the freelance musician and producer, who is married with three children.
He first found out about his brother's love for boxing when he noticed sandbags in his sister's Jurong flat, where Mr Shahril used to live.
"He picked it up only 13 or 14 months ago and I didn't think he would be ready to go professional so fast.
"But people in the boxing community who know him say he's got quick hands and heavy blows, and he was judged to be ready," Mr Jufri says with a touch of pride.
Today, he is still not sure what led to his brother's collapse, but doctors say the brain damage was not caused by a prior medical condition.
"Now I just want him to be okay. The rest doesn't really matter," he says.
"He was really excited about the debut. He's a man and I'm a man. I understood he was putting his pride on the line. He kept telling me he was going to do our family proud, do Singapore proud. He wanted to go somewhere in life," he adds.
Overweight as a kid
Overweight as a kid
His brother did not have it easy growing up as a child, adds Mr Jufri. He was overweight and used to get teased about it.
"I remember he was about two years old and some kids around the neighbourhood were calling him names and throwing sand at him.
"They spoke very well so I couldn't out-talk them. I remember feeling so frustrated and crying, then bringing him back home," says Mr Jufri, chuckling at the memory.
He admits that he is a protective big brother. He declares: "I can bully him, but if others bully him they mess with me."
Their hawker mother and security officer father barely made enough to make ends meet.
"We used to have rice, eggs, and soya sauce. Something simple," he says.
Then, when Mr Shahril was nine years old, their father died from several health problems. Five months later, their mother followed.
"From a young age, he liked football and wrestling with my friends and me for fun. "Although he was a man of few words, he was generally easy-going and always had a big smile," he says.
Mr Shahril, who had been dating his girlfriend for six years was intending to get engaged next month, MrJufri reveals.
"It would have been easier to accept if he was already at a ripe old age.
"He had his whole life ahead of him, and planned to further his studies, often asking me how to go about getting a diploma," he says.
Mr Jufri confesses that these days, sleep does not come easy.
"When I'm alone, the tears will come. Especially when I think about what he will be and what he was in the past.
"It's unfair... I got to pursue my dream, music... and he was supposed to pursue his...," he says. Mr Shahril is still in a critical phase, fighting to survive. Doctors do not know when he will wake up from his coma, but that is something his brother tries not to think about.
Mr Jufri says: "We don't want to think of death.
"We're very grateful about how much support we've received so far, and we want to keep doing what we can for him."
Race to raise funds for local boxer in coma
Race to raise funds for local boxer in coma
Even those who don't know him have been moved to help.
Singaporeans from all walks of life are pledging themselves to Wake the Bull.
This refers to a movement to support and raise funds for Mr Shahril, who was known in the boxing scene as The Bull.
"It's about making a difference to a young lad's fight to live," says Miss Alicia Pan, who owns yoga studio Yoga Movement, located near Clarke Quay.
Miss Pan, who is also a noted local singer and musician, led 20 people in a series of poses yesterday in a session organised to raise funds for Mr Shahril.
"It was a strong and dynamic flow dedicated to his fight for recovery," says the 28-year-old. Miss Pan will match the $1,003 collected, and the entire amount will go towards helping Mr Shahril's medical costs.
The two first met at Juggernaut Fight Club at Boat Quay, where both sparred.
Although they never got to know each other properly, he always had positive energy around him, she says.
The movement to help Mr Shahril gained some momentum over the last two weeks leading up to his birthday.
A video containing footage of his sparring sessions was uploaded on his Facebook page, along with updates on his medical condition.
One-armed runner Adam Kamis, who lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident also designed a special singlet with the words "I run for Shahril 'The Bull' Salim" printed on it.
He wore it for the recent Standard Chartered Marathon.
A separate 50-km run, which starts and ends at Singapore General Hospital, will also be held in about two weeks to raise funds.
For more details on the project, visit www.facebook.com/wakethebullproject.
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