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Get-well wishes spurred Heng Swee Keat on

18 Dec 2016

Tham Yuen-C

Assistant Political Editor

People across Singapore and from all walks of life sent wishes for a speedy recovery to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat after he collapsed from a stroke in May.

Flowers and hampers of chicken essence packed the Heritage Museum at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), messages were left on his Facebook page and there were cards and framed artwork by children and adults alike.

The good wishes played a significant part in helping him get well.

Opening up for the first time about his road to recovery, Mr Heng said at an interview on Tuesday: "The support and encouragement I got, from my immediate family members to members of the public whom I don't know personally, were very touching."

"It helps. It made me feel 'Oh, you're a part of something bigger', and that was quite meaningful. It was quite amazing."

In fact, the cards and messages were used to get him back on his feet. Mr Heng was unable to stand on his own after the stroke and he had to do daily exercises to build up strength in his body.

His physiotherapists at the hospital turned to the get-well cards to spur him on. They placed them at eye level so that he could read them only when he stood up.

Another motivator was a miniature of the lion statue that was part of the Future of Us exhibition last year to mark Singapore's 50th year of independence. It was given to him by the team that worked with him on the exhibition.

"I must say, my colleagues, family and friends and the hospital crew were quite creative," he said.

"Initially, it was difficult just to walk a few steps, so my wife used the mini-statue as a medal to motivate me. I got it every time I reached a target she set."

Mr Heng had suffered a ruptured aneurysm on May 12, during a weekly Cabinet meeting.

He said he did not suffer great damage, as fellow office-holders who are trained doctors had begun resuscitation efforts while waiting for the ambulance to make sure his heart continued pumping and he did not stop breathing.

Just four minutes without oxygen could mean permanent damage to the brain.

He was taken to TTSH where he was given a scan right away. Neurosurgeons then performed endovascular coil embolisation on him, a surgery to seal off the aneurysm.

Doctors who spoke to The Straits Times said it would typically take three to six months for a stroke patient to recover fully, but Mr Heng was discharged after being warded for six weeks, and was able to walk unaided by then, albeit unsteadily.

Now, almost seven months on, there is no slur in his speech and no wobble in his gait. Striding in for the interview last Tuesday, Mr Heng appeared fresh and energetic. His was a recovery many have described as miraculous, and Mr Heng is thankful to all who had part in it.

"I was very, very lucky. I'm very grateful to my colleagues in Cabinet, especially Dr Janil Puthucheary, the ambulance crew and the medical team," he said. "I'd also like to thank the many people who have been so warm in their good wishes to me."

While he could remember the initial baby steps he took lucidly, he was at a loss about what happened on the day he had taken ill.

"Actually, I don't remember what happened. It was only later that I began to piece together what happened from what my colleagues, wife and doctors related," he said.

The only thing he remembered of that day was having a headache before the Cabinet meeting, and taking a Panadol tablet for it. "I thought it's just one of those things, maybe I didn't have a proper rest."

But doctors later told him they believe that was the start of his stroke. Severe headaches are one of the symptoms when aneurysms bleed.

The episode was scary for his Cabinet colleagues and especially difficult for his family. Not least because he developed a lung infection in the hospital, which complicated his treatment.

The six days he lay unconscious were the hardest moments, he said, but not for himself as he was "totally unaware of what was happening".

They weighed heaviest on his wife, Ms Chang Hwee Nee, 53, who is deputy secretary at the Ministry of National Development, as she had to make some "very difficult decisions" about his treatment, such as whether doctors should proceed with inserting a tube into his lungs.

"It was very stressful for her, but I must say she's quite resilient. And, of course, my children and family members were supporting her, and friends and colleagues also stepped forward to offer help," he said.

Mr Heng has a son and a daughter, who are in their 20s.

The days immediately after he woke up were hazy. "I do have vague recollection about wondering where I was and why I am not allowed to get out of my room... I was told I was struggling to get up, but I don't know what was on my mind," he said of waking up in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"My wife told me they had a hard time explaining to me that I was in a hospital. I thought I was in some office at a meeting... I asked to have coffee," he added.

For the first week or so, he communicated through writing, not able to speak with tubes inserted down his windpipe to help him breathe. "The first few pieces I wrote, the handwriting was not very good. After a few days, it got a lot smoother," he said.

Mr Heng was also put through speech and balancing exercises daily, as part of his rehabilitation.

In a Facebook post after he returned home in June, he described the six weeks in hospital as the "toughest of my life".

But now, he exudes a Zen-like calm when speaking about his experience. "I must say I felt okay. By the time I was conscious, the focus was on regaining my strength," he said.

While he was weak, and it took gargantuan effort just to perform routine tasks like sitting up, the encouragement of those around him helped to make it easier.

"At every stage, there was something to strive to do better, and that kept me going. I knew that if I did it properly, I'd be back to my normal self, so I was quite focused on that."

It also helped that he paced himself during the rehabilitation, and spent his free time catching up on the news. After his discharge, he read all the cards, notes and e-mail messages he received, and also followed news about the United States presidential election campaign.

Now, he is mostly well, except for his lungs, which are still recovering from an infection.

To make sure it does not recur, his doctors have asked him to avoid crowded places, including even meetings with more than 10 people.

This means Mr Heng has not been able to return to his grassroots work in Tampines GRC, which he helms.

But he has been back at work at the Finance Ministry since August, busying himself with the Committee on the Future Economy and next year's Budget.

Asked if the near-death experience had changed his life's priorities, he said: "In a way I would say, 'No'. I have always believed that in whatever we do, we should do our best. And so now that I am able, I will continue to do my best."

But the scare has made him pay more attention to his health. He tries to sleep earlier now, at 10pm, instead of past midnight.

Also, instead of working long stretches non-stop, he now sets an alarm in his mobile phone to remind him to take a break every hour and just walk around. "Sometimes I forget," he quipped. "But I decided I needed to pace it, do it in a more gradual way."

Has the experience made him think more about life's purpose?

"Do I think there may be a bigger purpose in life? One must never dismiss this. Life is full of mystery. It's quite amazing how things turn out."

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.