Poly girl in ICU: Mild fever leads to 7 ops in 4 days

PHOTO: Poly girl in ICU: Mild fever leads to 7 ops in 4 days

SINGAPORE - In the span of 14 days, student Tan Sumiao, 23, has gone through seven operations to save her life.

Most of them were for her heart, one was for her lungs and one to replace the breathing tube in her throat.

And it all started with a mild fever, which did not go away after half a month.

Ms Tan is now lying unconscious in the intensive care unit of the National University Hospital (NUH).

For her ageing parents, Mr Tan Sew Poh, 64, and Madam See Beng Hwa, 63, it feels like history is repeating itself.

Three years ago, Miss Tan's twin sister died in hospital after she was warded for a regular check-up.

Miss Tan, who graduated from Republic Polytechnic (RP) last year with a biomedical science diploma, recently enrolled for a part-time course in Singapore Polytechnic.

As the remaining child, she wanted to further her studies so she could get a better job to support her parents.

She also worked part-time while studying and recently left her job as a lab technician because of exhaustion.

Speaking in Mandarin, Madam See, a part-time data entry clerk, said: "She had been feeling tired lately. After her younger sister died, she was badly affected.

"She was hardworking and frugal, but I've always told her not to over-exert herself."

Before going to hospital, Miss Tan had consulted her family doctor four times.

Blood tests by her family doctor did not reveal anything amiss, but Miss Tan was feeling frustrated that the fever would not go away and decided to get a second opinion.

Accompanied by her parents, Miss Tan, who was nursing a fever, headed to the Accident and Emergency Department of Alexander Hospital on the night of June 29.

After tests, which included an X-ray, Miss Tan seemed to be feeling better. She was to be warded for two days for observation.

Surgery

But things took a turn for the worse the next evening. She had difficulty breathing and was sent to surgery.

She was later transferred to the intensive care unit in NUH that night, said Mr Tan, a part-time bookkeeper.

Her good friend, Mr Alvin Lee, 22, a schoolmate at RP who has known her since 2011, learnt of her condition on July 8.

"She told me that she was not feeling well and did not reply to my messages for two weeks. She didn't pick up my calls either, so I was worried and called her home.

"To my shock, her mother told me that she was in hospital," he said.

Her parents are unclear about the specifics of her condition, only that it was a viral infection that has affected her heart, lungs and blood.

They visit her daily, wearing surgical masks to minimise infection. Often, they call out to her.

"Dad is here to see you. Wake up quickly, okay," said Mr Tan loudly.

A Hello Kitty doll is placed beside Miss Tan. She has a tube attached to her mouth.

"Sumiao really likes Hello Kitty and she collects all the dolls. This doll was a gift from Alvin. My daughter makes friends very easily," Madam See said softly.

Her parents placed a recording of Buddhist chants by her bedside, hoping to stimulate her.

Mr Tan said in Mandarin: "The first few days that she was in the hospital, there were three machines hooked to her. Thankfully, there is only one now.

"My tears have run out. As a parent, it is heartrending, but I also know that I must face reality."

The family declined to reveal details about the younger twin's illness, except to say that Miss Tan's condition is unrelated to her sister's. They were identical twins.

"Sumiao has always been healthy, except for the occasional flu," said Mr Tan.

In 2011, Miss Tan's sister had visited the hospital for a regular spinal check-up and was warded for seven days for observation. But her condition became worse and she went into a coma for two weeks before she died.

The deceased twin's medical bills had wiped out the family's savings, and the couple, who earn about $1,700 a month, are now in debt. Miss Tan's hospital bill has come up to about $38,000 so far.

Her father said the doctors estimate that Miss Tan would have to remain in hospital for at least another month for observation.

Madam See said: "My daughter is a very kind girl and she's still so young, but this has happened to her.

"As parents, we never think of asking her to repay us and just wish that she is healthy. I've always told her to take care of herself because her sister is already gone."

Such infections uncommon

Such infections uncommon

A viral infection as severe as the one that hit Miss Tan Sumiao is uncommon, said two doctors The New Paper spoke to.

"In most cases, the body's immune system will be able to handle a viral infection," said Dr Madeleine Chew, founder and resident doctor at MW Medical.

But she notes that there are some viruses, such as the chicken pox virus, that can attack the brain.

Dr Clarence Yeo, who practises at Killiney Family & Wellness Clinic, agreed, but added: "Young children might be more susceptible to viral infections because their immune system might not be fully developed."

He said that Miss Tan's situation was unfortunate, but it is often difficult to tell when a viral infection can become severe.

"Blood tests may not be able to pick up all viruses so one should always be mindful of complications, especially if symptoms are persistent," he said.

linheng@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on July 16, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.