Stares make him feel like a supermodel

SINGAPORE - I'm a supermodel.

That's what Mr Mervyn Tan, 47, tells himself whenever people stare at him.

This is the mantra that he has learnt to live by in response to the countless stares he gets for the big, red patches on his arms.

Mr Tan, who has been suffering from psoriasis for 25 years, has no time for self-pity.

Today is World Psoriasis Day, and Mr Tan is one of 40,000 people in Singapore who has the skin disease, according to Freedom 360, a community support programme for psoriasis patients set up by pharmaceutical firm Janssen and the Psoriasis Association of Singapore.

Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes lesions to appear on the skin. It is not contagious and its cause has not been fully determined, said the International Federation of Psoriasis Associations.

Eating heartily during a recent lunch interview with The New Paper, Mr Tan's gregarious personality outshone the multiple red patches on his arms, as he candidly recounted how he has stayed positive about his condition.

The insurance agent first discovered his condition when he was 22 and studying at the University of Miami.

He said that at that time, thick, rubbery skin had started flaking at his scalp and a visit to the doctor confirmed that he had psoriasis on his scalp.

"I didn't have that long to grieve, I had to start treatment. I just wanted to get better - the doctor told me that it cannot be cured, but it can be managed," he said.

"The psoriasis on my scalp was the most traumatic. I tried to hide it with my fringe by keeping longer hair to mask the patches on my forehead," said Mr Tan.

It later broke out on other parts of his body such as his fingernails, groin and armpits.

Since then, Mr Tan has been on a roller coaster journey, living with and trying to fight his condition.

Now, when he meets his clients, he always explains his condition to them briefly.

"Sometimes, I meet my clients in their homes and they have young children. So I let them know that my condition isn't contagious," said Mr Tan.

Mr Tan said he has never met a client who has shunned him because of his condition.

Although he often gets stares in public, Mr Tan is more concerned about people's understanding of psoriasis than having to face prejudice from society.

"The main problem is that society is ignorant of psoriasis. Sometimes, I just say I have eczema because I don't want to explain," said Mr Tan with a sigh.

Eczema is a dry skin condition where skin is scaly, red and itchy. In more serious cases, it can even cause bleeding.

Once, a friend even asked him if he had leprosy.

"I found it very amusing. I put myself in the shoes of someone without psoriasis, and I might have thought that way too," Mr Tan said.

'Very positive'

Said Mr Lee Wai Seng, 53, a friend of Mr Tan's, who has known him for six years: "Mervyn is a very positive person. After knowing him, I've become more positive myself."

Mr Lee, who runs a renovation business, added: "Whenever I talk to him about my work pressure, he tells me that life is short - so enjoy it."

Although stares and questions do not hurt Mr Tan, the condition does cause him physical pain, especially when he showers.

"The touch of water on my skin feels like acid," said Mr Tan.

Still, he spends about an hour to shower, making sure he moisturises and scrubs off the dead skin from his body before he leaves home.

This is necessary to prevent the flaking of his skin.

"You'll have to be very conscious of your flaking. For example, after sitting on a black chair, the flakes can be seen (on it) after you get up. It is very embarrassing," he added.

Nevertheless, Mr Tan is blessed to have the support of his wife of 17 years.

"It was never a problem even when we were courting - she thinks nothing of it, although she sees it," said Mr Tan of his wife, whom he met 19 years ago when they were working at OCBC Bank.

She also helps Mr Tan in his laborious daily shower routine of scrubbing dead skin from his back.

With a smile, Mr Tan said: "I always tell myself: If you're a supermodel, everyone stares at you. So I'm also a supermodel - because everyone stares at me."


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