Capturing poignant moments of a life-saving operation

The transplant team looking at an ultrasound after the liver was implanted to ensure that all the vessels were working. Photojournalist Wang Hui Fen (far left) was in the operating theatre for the 12-hour transplant operation on Aug 1. Jeremy looking
Jeremy looking at his medication with his mother Maggie Yu on Aug 26, the day he was discharged from NUH. He had stayed in the hospital for 45 days.ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN
The transplant team looking at an ultrasound after the liver was implanted to ensure that all the vessels were working. Photojournalist Wang Hui Fen (far left) was in the operating theatre for the 12-hour transplant operation on Aug 1. Jeremy looking
The transplant team looking at an ultrasound after the liver was implanted to ensure that all the vessels were working. Photojournalist Wang Hui Fen (left) was in the operating theatre for the 12-hour transplant operation on Aug 1. PHOTO: LISA ANG

ST photojournalist recounts the emotions she felt in witnessing a dad's bid to save son's life

 

In my 16 years as a photojournalist, I have seen my share of drama and poignant moments from behind the lens.

I have covered the aftermath of 2004 tsunami in Aceh, and stood amid a crossfire between police and bank robbers in the Philippines.

But none of them has been so intense, yet so personal (I have two young sons), as witnessing a father giving part of his liver to save his infant son's life.

I had been a little hesitant about this assignment, because injections make me weak in the knees and the sight of needles and blood make my heart beat faster.

What if I fainted, or worse, collapsed over the patient as the doctor was opening his abdomen?

As the final stitches were put in place, I thought about Jeremy's mother, waiting to hear about her son and husband.
I couldn't help feeling blessed that my two young boys are healthy.

But being given full access to document the procedure was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I took control of my anxieties, went into professional mode and on July 30, two days before his major operation, I met 22-month-old Jeremy Guo.

He had biliary atresia, a life-threatening condition where his liver cannot get rid of toxins.

Initially shy, the bubbly and playful toddler was soon wrapping his hands round my camera to try to take pictures.

But a few signs betrayed his grave illness: his yellowish complexion, a yellow tint on the whites of his eyes from the poisons in his body, and a swollen belly.

His father, project engineer Guo Yang, 34, and and his mother, trading assistant Maggie Yu, 33, trailed their only child protectively in the hospital playground.

 

Jeremy's two grandmothers were also within arm's reach, in case their "guo guo", (Jeremy's nickname, meaning "apple" in Mandarin), took a tumble.

The big day came.

At 5.30am, a pale-looking Mr Guo, wheeling a stand with a bag of saline solution, emerged from his ward to see his son one last time before the operation.

Jeremy was still fast asleep when his father leaned over and gently kissed his face, before leaving to get prepped for his procedure.

 
 

Within an hour, I found myself standing in the operating theatre. Anaesthetist Terry Pan was administering the specified dosage on Jeremy.

Soon, Professor K. Prabhakaran, director of the National University Hospital's Paediatric Organ Transplant Programme, entered and picked up a scalpel.

He drew a line with it on Jeremy's tiny body. I took a deep breath and felt paralysed, except that my right index finger continued working on my shutter, clicking away.

Next door, another team was on standby, ready to remove part of Mr Guo's liver.

 

As the hours went by, I felt neither faint nor queasy. In fact, sweet relief washed over me when the team finally removed Jeremy's sick liver, which was scarred, swollen and covered with fibrous tissue.

In its place went his father's donation, a slice that was smooth and a healthy red.

It was a long 12 hours, but I felt privileged to have been given a front-row seat for a real-time view of the transplant.

I would liken it to witnessing a brilliant orchestral performance - with every musician contributing magnificently under the baton of an able conductor, Prof Prabhakaran, to produce a symphony in perfect harmony.

As the final stitches were put in place, I thought about Jeremy's mother, waiting to hear about her son and husband.

I couldn't help feeling blessed that my two young boys are healthy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2015, with the headline 'Capturing poignant moments of a life-saving operation'. Print Edition | Subscribe