Robbed of hearing by GBS infection

After losing most of his hearing to a GBS infection last year, Mr Sim now relies on his wife, Madam Chew, to be his "ears" at the coffee shop and at investment seminars. To communicate, he types on his iPad or writes on paper.
After losing most of his hearing to a GBS infection last year, Mr Sim now relies on his wife, Madam Chew, to be his "ears" at the coffee shop and at investment seminars. To communicate, he types on his iPad or writes on paper.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Now almost totally deaf, survivor misses 'decent' conversations with wife and 3 kids

At work, he clinched million-dollar deals for his firm. At home, he was a doting father who enjoyed taking his three teenage children on road trips to Malaysia.

But a simple lunch of raw fish porridge at Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre last November with his wife has vastly changed Mr Sim Tharn Chun's life. The 53-year-old lost all hearing in his right ear and is left with only about 10 per cent of hearing in his left, after he was infected by the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria last November. The infection led to meningitis and loss of hearing.

Mr Sim was discharged from hospital on New Year's Eve after 43 days. But life has not been the same for him ever since.

He has not travelled out of Singapore with his family since then. Heartfelt chats with his three children are now few and far between.

His hearing loss also led him to resign as country manager of industrial giant Honeywell in May.

  • Some GBS cases linked to raw fish

  • Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a bacterium commonly found in the gut and urinary tract of about 15 to 30 per cent of adults without causing any disease.

    However, it may occasionally cause infections of the skin, joints, heart and brain.

    The elderly, newborn babies and those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, are at a higher risk of getting GBS infections.

    Though rare, healthy young people and middle-aged adults can also be infected.

    Last year, there were about 360 reported cases of GBS, including two deaths. About 150 of the cases were linked to the consumption of Chinese-style ready-to-eat (RTE) raw fish.

    A ban on the use of freshwater fish in all RTE meals is still in force after it took effect on Dec 5.

    Food outlets selling raw fish dishes can use only saltwater fish intended for raw consumption. This refers to fish typically bred or harvested from cleaner waters, and stored and distributed following appropriate cold chain management practices.

    Food stalls at hawker centres, coffee shops and foodcourts are required to stop selling raw saltwater fish, unless they show that they can properly handle the meat.

    Restaurant operators can still sell raw saltwater fish dishes, which includes salmon, provided they comply with the practices required.

    Ng Huiwen

These days, he is still unable to distinguish between sounds and sometimes finds his head spinning when walking, as a result of the imbalance in his ears.

In January, he had cochlear implants in a painful operation that cost about $80,000, but a test in March showed that his brain stem was damaged, which meant chances of a full recovery remain slim.

"People's voices and background noises would fuse together, and they would all be clanging sounds to me," he said in response to written questions in an interview at Woodlands Regional Library near his home, a five-room flat in Woodlands.

To communicate, he types on his iPad or writes on paper. He tries to lip-read but admits that many expressions get "lost in translation".

He said: "Words are only a small part of communication. It is also the person's emotions and tones. I lose a lot of texture without these."

Looking back, he said: "Things were on a high note for me at the start of last year, and I wanted to do a lot more for myself and my family."

Now, simple tasks such as buying food at the coffee shop pose a challenge and he has to rely on his wife, Madam Cathryn Chew, 43, a financial consultant, to be his "ears".

She encourages him to go on daily walks and accompanies him to seminars on topics such as investments. She would transcribe the talks, while her husband writes down the presentation notes.

"I know now what a marriage really means," Mr Sim said, to laughter from his wife during the interview.

And while he yearns to play golf and tennis actively again, what he misses the most is having "decent" conversations with his wife and three children aged 14 to 18.

"With my children growing up, I can't help but feel like I'm missing out. I can't talk to them as a father or offer them advice. It frustrates me," he said, before tearing up.

He added: "Ours is not a perfect family, of course. And when there are quarrels, I feel very lost because I don't know what is wrong. I can't help so I stay quiet."

It has not been easy for his children as well, he said, and they are learning to cope in their own ways.

His eldest child, Charis, 18, recently earned three book prizes in her law management diploma course at Temasek Polytechnic. His son, Micah, 16, applied for a school bursary on his own initiative to lessen the family's financial burden and younger daughter Charity, 14, has improved in her studies.

"I used to be happy-go-lucky and I had all sorts of wishes and hopes. Now, I just want to focus on my health and improve my hearing to a level that is meaningful, so that I can support my family," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Robbed of hearing by GBS infection'. Print Edition | Subscribe