Some of you might remember Darren’s story which I wrote the night after he got married in Sep 2006. When I was a journo I asked Darren if I could write the newspaper story on him, but he was too shy. He’s not so shy now, and my dear ex-colleague Wan Ching finally did the deed a few days ago for The New Paper. I’ve reproduced her article here and it relates in greater detail what happened that fateful night and how he’s progressed since his marriage. Praise the Lord.
“I REFUSE TO BE DISABLED”
Helpless and with half his skull lost after a severe stroke, comeback doc wants to inspire others
REPORT: NG WAN CHING
IT HAD been his lifelong dream to be a doctor. He graduated top of his cohort in his junior college and worked hard in medical school to realise his dream.
After five years, he graduated from medical school and was ready to start houseman-ship as an intern.
Then a massive stroke hit him – and killed his dreams. Dr Darren Chua was just 24 years old then.
But Dr Chua, now 33, is not one to look back on life with regrets.
Today, he is forging ahead with a new venture, an education centre, to help students achieve their best.
A few months after his stroke, he had thought he could be back at work within a year.
“Later I found out it was not very realistic,” he said in an interview with The New Paper.
The stroke, which hit him on 28 Apr 2000, had sent blood gushing into his brain at such a furious rate that his brain shifted position.
“It moved to the right to make room for the blood,” said Dr Chua.
The pressure building up in his head could have caused irreparable brain damage. So doctors removed a part of his skull to relieve the pressure. It made him look like Robocop, in the movie about a super-human cyborg who had part of his skull removed too, he said.
Friends who visited said the same thing, when they noticed that one quarter of my head was missing,” he said with a laugh. His missing skull was put back on his head only six months later. By then, he knew he was not going to get back to work any time soon. The right side of his body was affected by the stroke.
It took him a long time to learn to walk again.
He has learnt to write with his left hand as his right hand is still feeling “tight” as a result of the stroke.
He had already taken his medical degree, from National University of Singapore, when he had the stroke.
“Hence, in a way, I have obtained what I wanted,” he said.
But he could not practise as a doctor as he had not undergone the one-year houseman-ship which was supposed to start a few days later.
On the day of his stroke, he had been home alone in the afternoon.
He was at the computer and preparing for emcee duties for the medical students’ graduation party that evening.
“My entire right visual field suddenly blacked out,” he said. Disorientation quickly followed. He lay down, hoping the symptoms would subside.
“I managed to navigate myself to my bed and that was when the headaches started,” he said.
The pounding was gradual but relentless. He started experiencing weakness over the entire right-side of his body and had difficulty completing sentences.
He called his then girlfriend, who called for an ambulance. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was immobile.
He passed out during the trip to the National University Hospital.
“I have always been asked, ‘Did you know you were having a stroke?’ My answer is no.
“At that point, I was just more interested in holding myself together and not breaking down,” he said.
Learning to walk, talk
He regained consciousness two to three weeks later but was unable to speak or walk.
He found out later from his parents that doctors had told them they could not commit to how much recovery he could achieve.
Said Dr Timothy Lee, Gleneagles Hospital consultant neurosurgeon, who operated on him at NUH: “He almost died. He had a huge blood clot.”
Dr Chua’s stroke was caused by a ruptured arteriovenous malformation in his left brain. (See infobar, above.)
He stayed in NUH for two months and spent another two months at Ang Mo Kio Community Hospital.
He went back to full-time work 2½ years later as a health administrator for the National Healthcare Group and stayed for two years.
By then he could walk, albeit with a limp.
Then he was offered a research scholarship to pursue a Masters in Science at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.
“The decision to accept was not easy. In 2005, the aftermath of the stroke was still very much on my body. My right side was physically weaker and I still could not see in my right visual field.
“The only thing that was going for me then was that my mental skills were very much unharmed,” he said.
As a challenge to himself, he took on the two-year research programme.
It was also during this period that he got married. (See report, above right.)
After that, he had a one-year stint with SingHealth, before leaving to open Potter’s Clay Education in Parkway Centre in Marine Parade in June this year.
He said: “If there is one thing I have drawn from these experiences, it is that persistence rules. No matter how many times I fell in the hospital, I always willed myself up because I refused to be in a wheelchair.
“No matter how many times I spelt or pronounced a word wrongly, I would attempt it again.”
He would not be treated as a disabled person.
Slowly he saw improvements. What started as a 40-minute walk from Suntec City Convention Centre to Tower 4, can now be done in eight to 10 minutes.
He continues to clock better times, though he still walks with a limp. He is now devoting his time to teaching because he has a passion for it.
And he is telling his story because he wants to motivate students.
“Even when you feel that life is against you, never ever give up,” he said.
SIDEBAR 1: From intrigue to respect to love
SHE says that despite his stroke, he is the man she has always wanted.
He says that she is a fantastic and supportive wife.
Mrs X Chua, 31, who is too shy to reveal her full name, said she and Dr Darren Chua, 33, met at a pub in 2002.
“I was there for work. The pub owner was my client and I was helping him with employee benefits,” said the former financial advisor. She saw Dr Chua drinking and his hand was shaking badly. “The thought popped into my head that he might be suffering from hyperthyroidism, because I had it too,” she said.
Hyperthyroidism is a condition where excessive thyroid hormones overstimulates metabolism, causing “speeding up” of various body systems and symptoms, resembling an overdose of adrenaline.
She asked him if he might have hyperthyroidism and didn’t know it.
“He said he didn’t have hyperthyroidism. He had a stroke. I asked him if he had seen a doctor and he said, ‘I am a doctor’”.
They did not meet again until two years later.
This was at another pub. Again, she was working and he was drinking with friends. Said Mrs Chua: “I think he was a little tipsy. He asked me out by asking whether he could come to church with me.
“Obviously when people ask if they can come to church with you, you don’t say no, right?” Things progressed steadily from there and in 2006 they got married.
“I started by being intrigued by him, then I was inspired by him and I grew to respect him for what he has gone through,” said Mrs Chua, who is now helping Dr Chua with his education venture.
The couple plan to start trying for children next year.
SIDEBAR 2: About AVM
THEY are defects of the blood circulatory system that are generally believed to be congenital. Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are made up of tangled arteries and veins. In Singapore, it is estimated to affect one in 100,000 people, although Associate Professor Ivan Ng, head of the neurosurgery department at the National Neuroscience Institute, suspects that figure might be higher.
Most patients do not know that they have an AVM. Some patients with AVMs have seizures or persistent headaches. An AVM can put additional strain on the blood vessels and the surrounding tissues. The strain on the blood vessels can weaken them and cause a rupture. This is known as a haemorrhage or a bleed. If an AVM bleeds, the patient experiences a very severe headache. The bleed may cause a stroke and even death.