Freewheeling sport of wheelchair rugby gives GBS survivor a new lease of life

Group B Streptococcus (GBS) survivor Tan Whee Boon may have lost his hands and feet, but he hasn't lost his spirit. The 51-year-old has learnt to walk and even took up a new sport: wheelchair rugby.
Mr Tan Whee Boon passing the ball during a wheelchair rugby session on Oct 4, 2016.
Mr Tan Whee Boon passing the ball during a wheelchair rugby session on Oct 4, 2016.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

For three hours on Tuesday (Oct 4) night, 51-year-old Tan Whee Boon rolled himself around a basketball court trying to get a volleyball across a finish line. He took bumps from his teammates and ended the night with several fresh bruises and abrasions on his arms.

Tomorrow, Mr Tan will hop on a flight to Jakarta and represent Singapore in the 2016 TAFISA World Games, where his team will battle it out with their counterparts from seven other nations.

Not an unusual story, except Mr Tan had his four limbs amputated last year after a bout of food poisoning led to medical complications, and he is competing in Singapore's first wheelchair rugby team.

He told The Straits Times he was very excited to be on his first flight since his unfortunate brush with Group B Streptococcus in July last year.

He even cracked a joke in Mandarin: "I didn't even think I could go through Customs without my hands and feet. The thought of it is funny - how do I scan my thumbprint?"

Mr Tan, formerly a technician, found himself vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea last July after eating a raw fish dish.

 
 

Tests revealed he had severe pneumonia complicated by sepsis. He was given a drug to direct blood flow to his vital organs, which saved his life.

But his hands and feet then turned gangrenous and had to be amputated.

Since then, he has been regaining his independence in little ways. It started with an automatic wheelchair, prosthetic legs that let him walk short distances, and elastic cuffs on his arms that can hold on to utensils so that he can feed himself.

Now, Mr Tan needs help only with showering and using the toilet - duties his wife Choong Siet Mei, 47, is now teaching a caregiver to carry out so she can go back to work.

His story generated vast public support and donations last year.

While Mr Tan and his wife have always been positive about their ordeal, his voice takes on a significantly happier tone and he speaks a little faster when he talks about his newfound passion.

"The game is very exciting," he said. "It's also dangerous, you're allowed to bang into each other. It's like bumper cars, you know?"

His love affair with the sport started in June when he went to replace the tyre of his automatic wheelchair at DNR Wheels and met the founder, Mr Raja Singh, who is also vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

Mr Tan was invited to join the team during their practice. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to stick with it.

For Mr Tan, the best thing about wheelchair rugby is the freedom he feels when he rolls himself in the special manual chair used for the game - where the seats are lower so his arms can reach the wheels. "I felt like a fish back in water!"

Madam Choong, however, would have preferred him to swim instead as wheelchair rugby can be a rough sport. The couple have been married for 16 years, and have a son in Secondary 3 and a daughter in Secondary 4.

"But he looks so happy on the court, I don't have a choice," she said begrudgingly. "I'll just scold him if he comes home injured from practice."

Additional reporting by Nadia Chevroulet