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Friends rally to help nurse struck by illness

Event raises $3k for 23-year-old with rare condition causing burns and blisters

Published on Jan 5, 2014 7:51 AM
 

It began with what seemed like a fever and a rash less than two months ago. Then, Ms Jocelyn Suarez's skin started to burn off, literally, as her body ballooned in size and her kidneys failed.

The 23-year-old nurse was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare and life-threatening condition causing burns and blisters all over the body.

Her father Roberto Suarez, an engineer and permanent resident from the Philippines who has lived here for 13 years, told The Sunday Times yesterday that she is slowly regaining her strength in the Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) high dependency unit. "This morning she was able to walk three steps with a walker," he said.

Yesterday, a benefit event of poetry and music performances at Home Club raised $3,000 for her family to help pay a hospital bill of more than $100,000.

Ms Suarez's brother Joshua (left) with the organisers of yesterday's fund-raising event at Home Club (from left) Elwin Goh, 32, Deborah Emmanuel, 25, and Olivia Kwok, 27. The event raised $3,000 for Ms Suarez's family. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Ms Suarez's ordeal began on Nov 30, when she started feeling feverish and showed symptoms of an allergic reaction. When these did not subside, the nurse checked herself into Parkway East Hospital, her father said.

Her symptoms worsened the next day. Two days later, doctors confirmed that Ms Suarez had Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, usually caused by a reaction to medication. She was transferred to SGH's Burns Centre and placed in intensive care for three weeks. During that time, she was put on a respirator and started dialysis due to kidney failure.

As the symptoms spread, her skin began to peel off and water retention caused her body to swell. "When I first saw her, she was so swollen that she looked four times her normal size," said her brother Joshua, 22, adding that she could not move besides wiggling her toes. "I asked her if it was really painful and she responded 'yes'. I burst into tears."

The disorder is so rare that doctors asked to take a skin sample to study, to which her father agreed. "They don't even know whether it will recur," he said.

Ms Suarez, who has five brothers aged 16 to 22, graduated as valedictorian of her nursing class at Parkway College of Nursing and Allied Health and has been working for two years.

"She's a very joyful person. I've never heard her say anything bad about anyone else. And she loves talking to people," said her father.

He said he is "very grateful" for government subsidies which helped with the medical bill. Still, after forking out $25,000 from their savings to pay the remaining $108,000 bill, he and his wife had to ask for help from relatives and friends.

Her employer Parkway Shenton's chief executive Khor Chin Kee said Ms Suarez's colleagues have raised more than $15,000. The company's medical benefits cover up to $10,000 for staff.

Friends from the arts scene who know Ms Suarez through poetry performances and anime conventions have rallied together, hoping to raise $40,000 for the family. An online campaign at www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-jocelyn--2 has raised over US$14,000 (S$17,700) so far.

Meanwhile, Joshua's band SavingGraceSG also performed in yesterday's event. One of the organisers and Ms Suarez's close friend, photographer Elwin Goh, 32, said it was "an event Jocelyn would approve of".

joseow@sph.com.sg