Tah Ching Road lift accident

I did not feel pain, I was just so scared: Tah Ching Road lift accident victim

Madam Khoo, who now uses a wheelchair, has turned down offers of a prosthetic hand and says it should instead be given to younger people in her situation.
Madam Khoo, who now uses a wheelchair, has turned down offers of a prosthetic hand and says it should instead be given to younger people in her situation.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

After losing her hand, grandmother says all she wants is an explanation as to what went wrong

It is a hot, still Thursday afternoon and Madam Khoo Bee Hua stares pensively out of the window of her five-room flat in Tah Ching Road. Her right hand gingerly strokes a smooth stump where her lower left arm used to be, before it was severed in a lift accident.

Yet this is not what really bothers her. "Everyone knows that I lost my hand, but they don't know that it's my leg that's been giving me problems," she says in Mandarin.

Her left leg, lined with scars, is stiff and swollen from a recent infection. This has forced the proudly independent woman to use a wheelchair.

Insisting sometimes on going to the bathroom without help, Madam Khoo already knows what is the first thing she will do when she can walk again: step into her kitchen and start cooking.

She gets animated reeling off some of her specialities - te kar (braised pig trotters), fried bee hoon, popiah and pig stomach soup. They are Hokkien dishes which she often used to whip up for her children and grandchildren.

 
 
 

'DON'T SAVE ME'

I was so miserable I wanted to give up... I tried to tell the doctors, 'Don't save me any more.' I would rather have died than gone through yet another operation.

MADAM KHOO BEE HUA, recalling a low point on the road to recovery.

Now, Madam Khoo, who turned 86 last month, relies on an Indonesian maid to cook and care for her.

Six months ago, when she was still on her feet, the sprightly grandmother would bustle around the flat where she used to live alone, cleaning and cooking with her dog barking in the background.

This changed on the morning of Oct 9 last year, when she was on the way home after a morning stroll with "Doggie" - a mix-breed which the widow rescued from the streets a few years before.

She got into one of the two lifts that she always took up to her home on the 16th storey. What happened next remains a blur to her, but she was left with a broken left leg, and her left hand detached and mangled at the bottom of the lift shaft.

In her first interview since the accident, Madam Khoo tells The Sunday Times that she remembers lying on the lift floor, her head on her upper arm.

"I didn't know I had lost my hand," she says. "I just felt that it was very wet, like water was flowing from my arm. I thought I was sweating. I did not feel pain at that point. I was just so scared."

Madam Khoo also remembers how as she lay injured, she used her walking cane to knock on the doors and push the lift alarm button.

According to an investigation report submitted to the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), there was nothing wrong with the lift and the accident was a result of Doggie not following her into the lift before its doors closed.

The dog's 2mm-thick leash, which was too narrow for lift sensors to detect, got trapped between the doors. When the lift went up, the leash tightened around Madam Khoo's left wrist, pulling her hand through a small gap at the bottom of the doors, where it was crushed and severed.

Doggie was dragged up by the leash to the top of the outer lift doors, where it dangled, choking, until a passer-by cut it down.

After Singapore Civil Defence Force officers rescued Madam Khoo, she was rushed to the National University Hospital (NUH). A four-hour surgery failed to re-attach her hand, and she had to undergo another operation a few days later to treat her broken leg.

This was only the beginning of her ordeal. Madam Khoo spent almost five months in and out of various hospitals. Her first weeks of recuperation were a haze of painkillers and concerned faces, she says.

"People would come in and ask how I was, and I would just nod and go back to sleep."

In December, she returned home for just three days before a leg infection sent her back to hospital with a high fever. She went under the knife a third time to remove the metal plate in her leg, put in from a previous operation.

Over Chinese New Year, the infection returned. She was hospitalised on the third day of the new year for another 10 days.

"I was so miserable I wanted to give up," she recalls, with tears in her eyes. "I tried to tell the doctors, 'Don't save me any more.' I would rather have died than gone through yet another operation."

Her doctors have advised her to rest her leg for now but, even in the wheelchair, Madam Khoo is restless. Throughout the interview, she constantly wheels herself around the flat with her feet, her face lighting up as she points out calligraphy pieces by her late husband and hand-coloured birthday cards from her grandchildren.

Her husband, Mr Lee Kock Meng, a former school principal and prominent grassroots leader, died from cancer about three years ago. She has a son, 60, and a daughter, 61, as well as five grandchildren.

But for a woman who used to sew her own clothes and cook Sunday dinners for a family of 10, the loss of a hand and her mobility is a blow. She reluctantly allowed her family to hire a helper to care for her. "I have no choice," Madam Khoo says with a sigh.

She now spends her days watching television and listening to radio. Her neighbours and friends from her qigong club often visit her, but she no longer goes out, besides for medical check-ups. Neither does she sing karaoke with her friends, like in the old days.

"I lack the mood for it now," she says. "I'm still very heavy-hearted."

Conspicuously absent is Doggie, who can no longer live with Madam Khoo because of her condition. The pet now stays with her son in the block opposite hers. "It's not been the same after the accident. It looks dazed, not as lively as it used to be."

During her hospital stays, her family took turns caring for her - her daughter in the morning before she went to work, her grandchildren in the afternoon and her son at night.

"I feel very bad that they had to spend so much time looking after me," Madam Khoo says.

This is why the staunch Buddhist cannot bear to trouble them to retrieve her left hand, which remains on ice at NUH. She wants it cremated, "so that when I finally move on, I can be whole in the afterlife".

She has turned down offers of a prosthetic hand. "It should be given to young people who are in my situation. I am already so old - it would be only for show."

Indeed, even after her ordeal, Madam Khoo seems more concerned about the well-being of others, especially her family.

"I pray for my children and grandchildren to be successful, live long lives and have a good future. As for myself, I don't need anything."

Jurong GRC MP and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, after visiting her in hospital after the accident, was moved by Madam Khoo's courage, describing her as "remarkably strong" and "indomitable".

While she has no qualms taking the lift that cost her her limb, closure still eludes her."If there was no problem with the lift," she asks, "does that mean that it was my fault?"

She adds: "I've already lost a hand - all I want is a comforting explanation. But I don't feel comforted."

Still, Madam Khoo is determined to "accept life" and move on.

"I just look forward to the day when I can stand up and do the things I used to do again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline ''I did not feel pain. I was just so scared''. Print Edition | Subscribe