Op to ease 2.33m-tall man's growing pains

Mr Win Zaw Oo (left) is 36 years old and 2.33m tall  - and still growing. He is in Singapore for surgery to remove a tumour in his head that is the cause of his growth spurt. Without the operation, he is likely to develop diabetes insipidus
Mr Win Zaw Oo (left) is 36 years old and 2.33m tall  - and still growing. He is in Singapore for surgery to remove a tumour in his head that is the cause of his growth spurt. Without the operation, he is likely to develop diabetes insipidus, a condition marked by excessive thirst; osteoporosis because the increasing weight on his joints will gradually erode them; and heart trouble, as his heart will also grow too large and could lead to heart failure, says liver specialist Khin Maung Win. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Myanmar patient here for risky surgery to remove tumour causing growth spurt

It is no fun being one of the tallest men in the world.

Towering at 2.33m, Mr Win Zaw Oo, from Myanmar, cannot buy clothes off the shelf and attracts curious stares or rude remarks wherever he goes.

Worst of all for "Big Zaw" - as he is known back home - is that he has not stopped growing, even at the age of 36.

He is now in Singapore for what he hopes will be a life-saving operation to remove a tumour in his head that is the root cause of his growth spurt.

Doctors have told him that without treatment, he could be dead in three or four years.

Surgeons at Singapore General Hospital will attempt to go through his nose to remove the tumour above his pituitary gland, which produces the growth hormone.

If all goes well, the surgery will be done within the next two weeks.

But the operation, funded by donors, is a precarious one. The tumour sits on an area of the brain that controls metabolic functions.

So there is a 15 to 25 per cent chance Mr Win Zaw Oo may lose his ability to urinate and his appetite may also spin out of control, said Yangon liver specialist Khin Maung Win, who arranged for him to come here.

Mr Win Zaw Oo's condition, called acromegaly - the excessive production of growth hormones - is very rare, affecting only six in 100,000 people worldwide.

When The Sunday Times met him last Friday, he appeared relaxed, and ambled slowly in huge flip-flops. He said he tires easily, one of several problems that come with his great height.

Squeezing into a chair, he was optimistic about his upcoming surgery. "Naturally, I am afraid of being operated on," he said. "But with the modern technology here, I am quite confident the operation will be successful."

Professor Khin Maung Win said the patient has little choice. Without surgery, he is likely to develop diabetes insipidus, a condition marked by excessive thirst. The increasing weight on his joints will gradually erode them, leading to osteoporosis. His heart will also grow too large, and could lead to heart failure.

Already, Mr Win Zaw Oo has lost one-third of his vision in the left eye, and his joints are showing signs of damage.

The alternative to surgery is to be put on anti-growth drugs for life. But a month's worth of treatment will cost at least US$6,000 (S$7,600) - well beyond the means of most.

Mr Win Zaw Oo has been jobless since he was 20, when things started to go wrong. He was of normal height at 18, but continued to grow at an alarming rate.

He started perspiring a lot when he exerted himself, and began having trouble walking normally. Soon, he towered over everyone in his village of Htone Pauk Chaing, about 400km from Yangon. His parents are peanut and sesame farmers and he is the eldest of four children, and the only one affected.

"Everywhere, I was a joke," he said. "People teased me all the time, and said I looked funny."

At first, he was angry.

"Some can be very nasty. But I got accustomed to it," he said.

As time went by, the villagers also got used to him and the taunting eased. But he had to stop doing odd jobs because he could not do physical activity for long periods.

These days, he is exhausted just after half an hour of chopping firewood for his family's home, which has no electricity.

"The maximum I can do is one hour," he said.

So he would fill his days with simple tasks like watering the plants and feeding the pigs.

His clothes are tailored for him by an uncle, and he has to change up to four times day because he perspires so much.

Both his parents are in their 60s and have heart problems, he said, adding that they can no longer work and have to be cared for by one of his three sisters.

The farm is kept going with the help of several workers paid US$3 a day, said Mr Win Zaw Oo, who is single. He said he hopes to expand the family business with his sisters after his health stabilises.

Farm life is simple, with water drawn from a well and no modern sanitation.

"It is a complete culture shock for me to be in Singapore," he said with a chuckle. "Seeing all these new things made me emotional."

Between his medical checks, he has visited Gardens by the Bay, the Esplanade, Merlion Park and Sentosa. "Many people came up and took photos with me," he said.

Being the centre of attention again did not make him feel good.

"I always have an inferiority complex when I see other people," he said. "I would very much like to be able to walk like other people."

chpoon@sph.com.sg