Help for man, 77, plagued by bugs

Bedbugs used to crawl all over Mr Choo Kim Guan's (right) body and rental flat (left).
Bedbugs used to crawl all over Mr Choo Kim Guan's (right) body and rental flat (left).PHOTOS COURTESY OF FION PHUA

Volunteers clear up infested flat, help retiree who has not showered in 10 years clean up

When veteran volunteer Fion Phua first met Mr Choo Kim Guan almost two weeks ago at his rental block in Jalan Bukit Merah, she was shocked.

Bedbugs weaved in and out of the 77-year-old man's clothes, and crawled freely on his neck and arms. He had neither showered nor brushed his teeth for more than 10 years.

In his one-room flat, where he lived with five cats, the odour was overwhelming. "There was cat faeces and urine all over. The toilet was completely clogged with human faeces," recalled Madam Phua, who was there with other volunteers to distribute durians to residents.

The 45-year-old founder of private volunteer group Keeping Hope Alive added: "He was eating durian as the bedbugs crawled all over him. What bothered me was not the smell or the bugs. It was seeing a man lose his sense of fear, like he didn't care anymore."

Madam Phua and her fellow volunteers knew they had to help him.

With Mr Choo's permission, they started cleaning his flat and removing old, dirty items. Bedbugs, which nestled in his belongings and scurried around "like ants", were squashed and blowtorched.

The volunteers also helped him to shower, comb his hair, trim his nails and wipe away his mucus.

Last Sunday, they returned to plaster and paint his walls. The team of 18 also bought him new furniture, and spent hours scrubbing his toilet and scraping off the stubborn waste matter.

His five cats, all bitten by the bugs, were taken to the vet.

When The Straits Times visited Mr Choo yesterday, the former odd job labourer was chatty and lucid, but struggled to recall specific dates and durations.

A few stray bedbugs were still spotted crawling on him.

But his home, once teeming with bedbugs and cobwebs, seemed spick and span. Only a few items dotted the flat, including an altar and a broken er hu, which he used to play in a funeral band.

"It's more airy now. The walls have not been painted for more than 10 years," he said in Hokkien.

Mr Choo said he has lived in his current flat for more than 10 years, and gets by on $450 in public assistance each month. Of this sum, he pays $26 for rent, $50 for utilities and spends the rest on food.

The eldest of four siblings, he attended a Chinese primary school till Primary 6. He is not married and has no children.

The bachelor used to live with his late brother in another rented flat at nearby Kim Tian Road, but the old block has since been demolished.

He also has two younger sisters, in their 70s, living in Toa Payoh and Telok Blangah. But they do not visit him regularly.

At a coffeeshop below his block yesterday, Mr Choo's kind-hearted nature was apparent.

While his simple meal of porridge, tofu and braised meat cost him just $2, he forked out twice the amount to buy a fish for the one cat that was returned to him.

When asked why he did not wash himself for so long, he replied: "Who says I don't keep (myself) clean? I wash my shirt every three to four days."

Manicurist Veronica Tan, 35, one of those who helped Mr Choo on Sunday, said: "It's very fulfilling to see him happier and healthier now."

While many neighbours had avoided Mr Choo for years, volunteers like Madam Phua and Ms Tan have made a difference.

"Not many people come knocking on my door," said Mr Choo. "So when they were willing to help me clean, I said okay. "

As for the busted vermin, it spells a better night's sleep for the retiree. "I don't have to wake up because of them biting me," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Help for man, 77, plagued by bugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe