SINGAPORE - A dream holiday to Europe that a family had planned for six months turned out to be a nightmare which they are grateful to have survived.
Three days after the Ng-Chans returned on March 21, having cancelled two stops because of the looming pandemic, three family members fell ill with Covid-19.
Mrs Celine Ng-Chan, a 31-year-old tuition teacher who was 10 weeks pregnant, found out she had Covid-19 after going to a doctor with a sore throat. That night, her two-year-old daughter, Aldrina, came down with a fever as well.
In addition, Mrs Ng-Chan learnt later that her mother, Madam Choy Wai Chee, 58, had collapsed earlier that same day because of Covid-19 as well.
Only Mrs Ng-Chan’s husband, 32, and her father, 62, escaped infection.
Madam Choy was hospitalised for four months at the National University Hospital (NUH), spending 29 days on a life support machine that took over the function of her heart and kidneys.
That was the longest any Covid-19 patient had been on the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) in Singapore. She was also NUH's longest-staying Covid patient, said an NUH spokesman.
"I feel very heng (lucky in Hokkien) that I'm still alive. I still haven't played enough with my granddaughter yet," said Madam Choy, an office manager. Celine is also due to give birth next month, she pointed out.
"It's like getting a second chance at life, a new life. I really treasure my life now."
Madam Choy also has three sons, aged 19 to 29, none of whom became ill.
She was case 738 of the nearly 58,000 people who have tested positive for the virus here since the first case was confirmed on Jan 23. The vast majority were foreign workers living in dormitories, where the virus quickly spread.
A total of 27 people here have died of complications related to the disease, while another 15 patients who tested positive for the virus died of other causes.
The ordeal for Mrs Ng-Chan, her husband, her daughter and her parents began after they came home from their family holiday to London and Paris. They had planned to visit Rome and Barcelona as well, but cancelled the Italian and Spanish stops, as Mrs Ng-Chan felt it was unwise to continue.
The last week of their trip was spent holed up in a London bed-and-breakfast, which they left only to buy food.
She and Aldrina were admitted to NUH as cases 739 and 759. They were given the same room.
"At least I could take care of her," Mrs Ng-Chan said. "We tried to sleep our days away."
Neither became very ill, and they were discharged 2½ weeks later when they tested negative for the virus.
Although she worried about her early-stage pregnancy, which only her husband knew about then, what made her sick with fear and anxiety was her mother's condition.
"I broke down when I heard that my mum had a 30 per cent chance of dying. I was very afraid of losing her," she said.
As Madam Choy has a curved spine, which makes her hunch, her lungs do not expand as well as they should and are less able to cope with the disease, said Dr See Kay Choong, head of NUH's division of respiratory and critical care medicine.
At one point, her liver, heart and kidneys malfunctioned and she began to bleed continuously from the numerous tubes into her body.
What added to Mrs Ng-Chan's anguish was that she could not visit her mother, even though they were in the same hospital.
A few days after Mrs Ng-Chan was discharged in April, her grandmother died following a short illness at the age of 83.
She could not go to the funeral because of the cap on the number of people at a wake during the circuit breaker, although she believes her grandmother would not have wanted her, being pregnant, to attend it.
Mrs Ng-Chan said: "I never properly grieved my grandmother's death until I went with my mother to pay respects at the niche. I bawled my heart out."
Madam Choy herself was critically ill in the intensive care unit when her mother died, and learnt about her death only a month later.
She said with tears in her eyes: "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it until I saw pictures of the funeral. Why didn't my mother wait for me (to see her before she died)?"
Madam Choy was discharged at the end of July and has gone back to work as an office manager, but the virus has taken its toll.
She lost 9kg, and now weighs just 43kg. For the rest of her life, she will have to use a non-invasive ventilation machine to help her breathe when she sleeps. She is also undergoing physiotherapy to help her regain strength in her limbs.
The family do not know how or where they were infected.
On top of that, Mrs Ng-Chan also had to contend with angry netizens, who criticised her for going on holiday, after she wrote an emotional post encouraging parents to keep their children at home and not complain when the schools were closed during the circuit breaker.
In her post, she wrote about the pain of watching her daughter suffer the Covid-19 treatment, which invited the backlash.
She said: "I tuned out all those people criticising me for travelling to focus on parents who were worried about their children getting Covid-19."
Her reason for the post, she said, was to share information with parents from her experience of having a child with Covid-19.
Mrs Ng-Chan is immensely thankful her whole family survived the virus, but she has had to fight the feelings of guilt about the holiday, especially while her mother lay gravely ill.
She said the family had considered cancelling the trip. But they went, as China, not Europe, was the epicentre of the virus and the World Health Organisation had not declared it a pandemic when they decided to go ahead with their travel plans.
Both Mrs Ng-Chan and her mother want to pay tribute to the care they got at NUH.
Mrs Ng-Chan said: "The healthcare staff were really my pillar of support. They took care of Aldrina like she was their own child."
While the whole episode has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions, it is not without a silver lining.
She said: "I cherish family ties and my husband a lot more now. I spend more time with my parents and I also feel closer to God."
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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.