Staying upbeat despite his cancer bout, wife's dementia

SINGAPORE - Mr Michael Wong sat on a metal bench in the garden beneath his Housing Board block in Toa Payoh North, looking tenderly at his wife.

Every now and then, the 78-year-old would reach out and wipe drool from the chin of Madam Monica Pang, 70, who was in a wheelchair.

"Are you happy?" he cooed.

She looked at him and gurgled happily, her speech and other cognitive abilities felled by severe dementia three years ago.

"She has become childlike, she giggles when she sees fat people," said Mr Wong, who takes his wife out for a walk in her wheelchair every morning.

Jaunty and cheerful, the former civil servant is not just a devoted caregiver but an exemplary patient and volunteer too.

He became an active member of the Colon Cancer Patient Support Group at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) after battling and surviving the disease a few years ago.

He is at the hospital every Wednesday morning, manning a hotline and counselling newly diagnosed colon cancer patients.

His enthusiasm and commitment won him a Singapore Patient Action Award, one of 11 given out by TTSH last week to honour individuals who have helped to co-create positive patient experiences.

"It's my way of giving back to society. I've had a good life.

"Before I close my eyes forever, I want to do something good," said Mr Wong, who was a human resource manager before he retired in 2011 when he was 73.

Before that, he worked in the Ministry of Finance for 38 years.

He and his wife, also a former civil servant, have been married for 45 years.

"She made me give up smoking and drinking. She said, 'If you want to choose smoking and drinking, don't come to see me. I don't want you to spoil my dress with your smoke,'" he said with a chortle.

Life was quiet and uneventful for the couple, who have a 42-year-old son, a lawyer.

But in 2010, Mr Wong came across a poster in a hospital which listed the five warning signs of colon cancer. Because he had three of these signs, including rectal bleeding and blood in the stool, he decided to go for a scope.

His worst fears were confirmed.

He went for immediate surgery, had radiotherapy sessions and, for several months, had to live with the inconvenience of a stoma bag to collect his waste.

His fight made him read up a lot on colon cancer. Three years ago, he decided to be a volunteer with the hospital's Colon Cancer Patient Support Group.

"When I was told I had colon cancer, a volunteer spoke to me and lifted my morale. I wanted to tell people it's not the end of the road and give them hope too," he said.

He had just got back on his feet when his wife was diagnosed with dementia in 2013.

"There were telltale signs. She took care of the utilities bills but we were getting reminders. When I questioned her, she would give different answers," he said.

A brain scan revealed that half her brain was damaged. Her condition deteriorated rapidly. Today, Madam Pang cannot swallow or speak and has lost her mobility.

Fortunately, she is mild and happy, not violent, he said.

"Of course, I am sad when I look at her. But life is like that. We have to accept it.

"Everyone has crosses to bear. Other people have it a lot worse. My job is to make her as comfortable as possible," said Mr Wong, who hired a helper from Myanmar to help him care for his wife.

He tries not to worry too much.

He said: "Every night, I pray for myself, my wife, my son, my daughter-in-law and my helper. I pray that my wife will have a peaceful night and that God will give us the strength to look after her."

This article was first published on Nov 4, 2016.
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