A blind baby from Bhutan, Tandin Wangmo, could soon enjoy the gift of sight, thanks to four Singaporeans with hearts of gold.
The four - lawyer Quek Li Fei, 55, and his wife Petrine, 59, her sister, retiree Priscilla Yap, 67, and dentist Dr Chng Chai Kiat, 39 - were on a week-long holiday in Bhutan last September when they learnt of the 16-month-old's plight.
Their tour guide, Mr Karma Tenzin, had told them that his second daughter would have no future as a blind person in the kingdom, located at the eastern end of the Himalayas.
Touched by his story, the Singaporeans paid for the toddler and her mother to fly to Singapore not once, but twice - first to restore her health and then her sight.
Tandin was born premature at 27 weeks with a low birth weight of 950g. She developed health issues, one of which was retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).
This disease in pre-term babies causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina, detaching it from the back of the eye, resulting in blindness.
Mrs Quek told The New Paper at Gleneagles Medical Centre, where Tandin was having a check-up before flying home today: "Her father Karma was our guide. When he told us about Tandin, our hearts went out to her. We decided to help her."
"My husband and I do not have children. To see someone this young dealt with a bad hand at the start of her life, we felt compelled (to help)," she added, eyes brimming with tears. She hosted the family at their landed home and even got her 90-year-old mother and a friend to chip in for the medical costs, "which came up to about $18,000".
"Others contributed a hongbao here and there," she said.
Dr Chng, who heads the Dental Service at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, rallied his doctor friends, many of whom waived their consultation fees or charged "a very modest surgery fee".
If it was not for this, Tandin's fees would have been about $30,000.
Tandin's parents had done all they could to restore her eyesight after doctors in Bhutan told them just after she was born that she has ROP.
They had all but given up hope after failing to find suitable treatment in neighbouring India.
Her mother, Ms Tshearing Eden, 34, said: "We took her first to Calcutta for laser treatment but Tandin's condition was worse than what the doctors thought.
We then took her to Chennai's Sankara Eye Hospital for an operation but it was hopeless."
Mrs Quek said: "When Tandin first came in early November, she had just recovered from three long bouts of bronchitis. We couldn't go through with the eye surgery."
The toddler was given a thorough check-up, which was when doctors found the Eustachian tubes (which connect the middle ears to the back of the throat) were blocked.
"She also couldn't hear," Mrs Quek said.
Otolaryngologist Dawn Teo operated on Tandin's ears at the same time as her eye operation to clear the blockage.
Ms Tshearing and her baby went home and returned to Singapore last month for the eye operation after Tandin recovered fully from bronchitis.
On Dec 29, retina surgeon Loh Boon Kwang operated on the baby for 1½ hours.
"Tandin's ROP was very serious. I assessed that her left eye would respond better to surgery, so I performed the vitrectomy to remove the scars within the left eyeball," said Dr Loh, who has a practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre.
"I had to cut away the scars carefully and let the retina reattach itself.
"In layman's terms, it's like removing the old gum that has pushed the wallpaper away from the wall and leaving the paper to reattach again.
"The retina had been stretched by the scars and was very thin. I had to make sure I did not make a hole in it."
Dr Loh said the instruments used were designed for adults and not so suitable for children as young as Tandin, who have much smaller eyes "but there are no better alternatives".
"This made the operation difficult. There was no room for error," he said.
Now all parties are waiting for Tandin's retina to slowly reattach itself.
"Part of the retina is already reattaching back but the whole process could take months to years," Dr Loh said.
He gave Tandin a pair of prescription glasses after the operation and they have helped the toddler become more responsive to light and shadows.
The mother and daughter will be back in April for an operation to fix her right eye.
A grateful Ms Tshearing said: "We were very lucky to have met so many kind-hearted people from Singapore, who were willing to help my daughter see again."
What is Retinopathy of Prematurity?
Retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, happens when abnormal blood vessels start developing at the back of the eye of a premature baby.
Blood vessels that feed the retina finish forming just before a full-term baby is born.
"In a premature baby, these blood vessels have not finished forming and continue to do so after the baby is born. Most of the time, they will form normally, but if smaller, abnormal vessels start developing, the condition is called ROP," said Dr Cheryl Ngo, a consultant at the Eye Surgery Centre in the National University Hospital (NUH).
She said the incidence and severity of ROP rise with the degree of prematurity at birth, low gestational age and low birth weight.
If left untreated, the abnormal vessels can lead to bleeding and scarring in the retina.
They may also cause retinal detachment, where the retina separates or moves from its normal position in the eye, leading to poor vision or even blindness.
"It is important for the doctor to check the baby's eyes for any abnormal vessels. If these vessels are treated in time, it may help stop retinal detachment," Dr Ngo said.
The type of treatment depends on the baby's eye condition. The baby may need laser treatment, freezing treatment, injections in the eye or surgery to repair retinal detachment.
Dr Ngo said her centre screens premature babies for ROP every week.
"There have only been three cases requiring treatment in NUH over the past two years," she said.
Others whom Singaporeans helped
GANGA AND JAMUNA SHRESTHA
Who: Nepalese twins Ganga and Jamuna were joined at the head when they were born in 2000. In 2001, they were separated by a team of doctors in Singapore in a 97-hour operation that attracted worldwide attention.
Amount donated: $660,000
Who: The Bintan boy, 6, had a tumour the size of an orange in his head, causing dizzy spells and bouts of nausea. He could not see, walk or speak. A group of Singapore volunteers and a doctor worked to remove the growth.
Amount donated: $30,958
MARK JAIRUS MENDOZA
Who: The Filipino toddler's parents did not have enough money for a liver transplant at a Hong Kong hospital in 2006 despite raising funds there and in the Philippines. A mystery Singaporean couple based in Hong Kong made a large donation to make the transplant possible.
Amount received: $52,300
Who: Thai teen Nitcharee, who had come here from Trang in Thailand for a holiday and to study English, fell on the train tracks at Ang Mo Kio MRT station in April 2011. A train pulling into the station at the time severed one of her legs. The other leg was so badly mangled it had to be amputated.
Amount received: $400,000
This article was first published on January 22, 2015.
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