19-year-old stays upbeat despite heart condition

Mechanical pump implanted as long-term temporary measure until transplant available

It was 11am on a Wednesday in July. Like other university students, Mr Choong Wei Tzen, 19, a first-year aerospace engineering undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University, was getting ready for school.

However, while most boys his age might have been busy spiking up their hair or finding the right shirt to wear, he was carefully dressing his wound.

It is an opening for a cable jutting out of his belly which bridges his ailing heart to a mechanical heart device, known as a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).

In August 2011, at the age of 14, he was admitted to the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) with a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, in which his heart was enlarged, weakened and unable to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs.

It had been caused by sepsis, an infection that formed as a result of his acute appendicitis.

Unable to give him a heart transplant, the doctors at NHCS surgically implanted the HeartMate II LVAD, a newer generation mechanical heart pump, as a long-term temporary measure to stabilise his heart until a transplant is available.

NHCS has done more than 67 implantations of the newer generation LVAD since 2009. To date, Mr Choong remains Asia's youngest patient on HeartMate II.

KARMA

I felt the pain for him when he had to go through this at such a young age, but in Buddhism, we believe that it is karma.

MRS JACQUELINE CHOONG, on her son, Wei Tzen.

"I'd feel blessed and ecstatic if I were able to receive a heart transplant," said the former Serangoon Junior College student, who won a scholarship award this year.

NHCS said it performs on average three heart transplants a year, but the time needed to wait for a match is unpredictable.

Since Mr Choong's operation, his father, Mr Gary Choong, a civil engineer, has devoted most of his time to looking after him.

"I will fetch him after school and dress his wound daily," said the 55-year-old, who also helps his son keep the pump dry every day during his shower.

Mr Choong lives in a rented three-room Housing Board flat in Hougang with his parents, brother and sister.

To carry his pump around, he has a specially tailored vest that stores it along with two lithium-ion batteries, lasting about 13 hours each, and cables. The whole arrangement weighs some 2kg.

He has had other operations, one last year to implant a pacemaker to stabilise his heart rate when he was diagnosed with arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm.

Over the years, the treatment has taken a financial toll. His first LVAD surgery alone cost $120,000 after subsidy, which his parents paid fully by instalment over four years.

He also had to give up playing sports. In fact, these days, Mr Choong, who earned a black belt in taekwondo at the age of 12, spends more time under shelter or in air-conditioned places to prevent sweat from forming or dripping onto his wound, which may cause an infection.

Through this ordeal, his parents turned to Buddhism in search of spiritual solace.

"I felt the pain for him when he had to go through this at such a young age, but in Buddhism, we believe that it is karma," said his mother, Mrs Jacqueline Choong, 52, who works in a government agency.

According to the Ministry of Health, heart failures alone account for around 6,000 hospitalisations on average.

Despite his condition, the younger Mr Choong remains positive.

His hope is to one day invent a product that can save lives - something like his LVAD, which saved his.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2016, with the headline '19-year-old stays upbeat despite heart condition'. Print Edition | Subscribe