Student with spinal problem uses art as crutch to life

PHOTO: Student with spinal problem uses art as crutch to life

Life has been like a roller-coaster ride for her.

Every time Miss Vanessa Leong, 21, overcomes one obstacle, another comes her way. But giving up is not in her vocabulary.

This weekend, she will be taking part in her first art exhibition featuring devices that have literally supported her through her darkest hours - a pair of crutches.

Miss Leong was born with spina bifida, a birth defect where the spinal cord is not completely developed.

It left her with an open wound on her back and she had to undergo surgery to close it.

However, the wound opened up again and water would flow to her brain.

Miss Leong was then sent for a second operation to insert a ventricular-peritoneal shunt to create a blockage to stop this flow of water.

Now studying business management at Regent Business School, she will be displaying a pair of decorated crutches at Goodman Arts Centre at Mountbatten in a visual arts exhibition by Dreamcatchers, a youth peer group for National University Hospital (NUH) patients with chronic illnesses.

Miss Leong's artwork is one of 13 to be showcased at the inaugural exhibition, which features some works made using medical equipment such as oxygen masks and urine bottles.

Titled Project Dreamcatchers, the exhibition is also part of National Youth Council's Shine Youth Festival.

A fall seven years ago had left her with a cracked hip.

She then spent the next few years in a wheelchair.



When she was 18, the doctor told her she could only move with crutches as her muscles had atrophied.

Miss Leong recalled: "I was quite depressed at first. It was hard to accept, but I realised that this was just part and parcel of life.

"I realised that being on crutches is no big deal."

Her art piece, aptly titled Happy Crutches, is a rainbow-coloured pair of crutches adorned with bells and painted with orange spirals.

She hopes the bells can replace the dull "thud" sounds of the crutches with a pleasant "ring".

She also wants the bright colours on them to cheer people up.

After all, a positive mindset has been the key to her perseverance.

She said: "Life might be hard, but in between those frustrations, you might step into something you'll never expect and the joy you get is worth it.

NUH medical social worker Tang Kar Wai, 24, hopes that through this exhibition, former patients will be able to convey the message that chronic illnesses are not disabling.

She said: "Art transcends all languages and ages.

"It is also a good medium for people to express their emotions."

When Miss Leong first heard about the exhibition in May, crutches were the first thing she thought of to represent herself.

Her tribulations

When she was five, she had to undergo tendon release as one of her ankles was turned 45 degrees upwards, making one leg shorter than the other.

After the operation, a metal plate was inserted into her leg to pull the bones together and make them of equal length.

After six months, Miss Leong had another operation to remove the plate and this caused her to defer her studies by a year.

One of her primary school teachers was understanding with regard to her health and she constantly encouraged Miss Leong.

Said Miss Leong: "I used to be very negative. Whenever I had any difficulty, I would give up. But she told me that the problems I face would make me stronger."

It was something she remembered when she found out that she was unable to walk without the aid of crutches.

But the next curveball life threw at her almost broke her resolve.

Three years ago, her doctor told her that she had pituitary adenoma, a tumour of the pituitary gland.

A non-cancerous tumour was pressing on her eye nerve, causing vision in her left eye to be blurred.

Miss Leong recalled: "My first reaction was to bang the bed cots in the hospital. I just couldn't accept the fact that I had this (condition)."

Her thoughts turned suicidal and it took a while for her to come to terms with the latest revelation.

"I asked myself, 'Why give up now after all you've been through?'

"After thinking about it for a long time, I realised I had to stay strong. It was a waste if I gave up now."

After careful monitoring, Miss Leong's eyesight has since stabilised.

She maintained: "No problem and no obstacle is too hard to overcome if you remain positive."


WHAT: Project Dreamcatchers

WHERE: Goodman Arts Centre, 90Goodman Road

WHEN: Friday, 7pm to 9pm. Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 9pm

ADMISSION: Free and open to public

This article was first published in The New Paper .