IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Showing off her scars to encourage other burn victims

Window display artist had almost one-third of her skin burnt during a road accident. She shares her harrowing experience with Lea Wee

Feb 2, 2008, was supposed to be a rest day for window display artist Lee Poh Ling.

But the Malaysian, then 35, wanted to finish some work that Saturday so she could return to her hometown Malacca the following week to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Hence, she made her way down to her company's retail shop at Suntec City Mall.

At a traffic junction along Holland Road, a small lorry carrying ice cubes rammed into the back of Miss Lee's year-old motorbike.

The impact sent her motorbike crashing into a taxi in front of it.

Both rider and motorbike fell to the ground and the oil tank beneath the seat of the motorbike burst into flames.

Other drivers stopped and carried Miss Lee to the roadside. Someone called an ambulance.

She was conscious throughout and in no serious pain, probably because she was in shock.

She said: "I thought I was not seriously injured and would be discharged after a few days."

In fact, she would spend the next three months at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) with burns to 31 per cent of her body, mostly on her buttocks and legs.

Doctors said burns which cover 20per cent of the body's surface carry a high risk of potentially fatal infections.

Miss Lee had also fractured her pelvis and dislocated her right sternoclavicular joint, where the breastbone connects to the collarbone.

PAINFUL ROAD TO RECOVERY

The pain started to flare after the first week in hospital, when doctors slowly reduced the amount of morphine they had given her, though they did not totally take her off it.

For the first 1 1/2 months, she had skin grafted on her legs every five days, first using donor skin and then, after her condition had stabilised, her own skin taken from her abdomen and back.

She said: "At one stage, it felt like my whole body was in bandages."

Skin could not be grafted on the burns on her buttocks as there was a higher risk of the graft shearing off from contact with surfaces such as the bed.

There, the dressings were changed daily and the burnt area left to recover by itself.

Her wounds were so extensive that infection set in and she ran a fever almost every day for the first two months.

Because of the fever, she could not undergo surgery to repair her fractured pelvis and dislocated sternoclavicular joint. She had to let them heal by themselves.

She had to be still most of the time. She passed urine into a bag and stool into a bedpan.

The pain became so intense it kept her awake at night. Desperate, she agreed to take anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

The pain and boredom were difficult to bear, said Miss Lee. Only visits from family, friends and colleagues could tide her over that difficult period.

Her mother, 66, a retiree, and her younger sister, 38, who helps their brother run a business, travelled from Malacca to be with her.

For four months, they lived in MissLee's rented room in an HDB flat.

She said: "They would come every day at 10am and stay till 8pm. They packed lunch and dinner for me and chatted with me."

LEARNT TO WALK AGAIN

Things started to look up about two months later, when her skin grafts had healed and the bandages were removed.

She said: "The first time I saw my legs, I couldn't believe they belonged to me. They were raw and red and looked like barbecued pork. Because quite a lot of flesh and muscles had been burnt off, my legs were as skinny as bamboo stems."

But slowly, she learnt to walk again. The urine bag was removed and she was able to make her way to the toilet by herself.

When she left the hospital, she walked out on her own, with small unsteady steps.

She refused her mother's request to go home to Malacca.

Miss Lee, who has worked here for more than a decade, said: "I wanted to stay on in Singapore and return to work."

Her medical bills came up to $100,000, which was taken care of by her former company and a fund it set up for her.

Her former company also paid her salary for a year until they had to fill her position when she was still unable to go back.

She had compensation from the insurance payout as well.

It took her about two years, after she was discharged, to get well.

Every day, three times a day, she climbed stairs to regain the strength in her legs.

She took her medication, which included anti-itch medicine, antidepressants and sleeping pills.

Several times a day, she applied olive oil to moisturise her skin.

She wore special compression tights to help improve the appearance of her scars.

Even then, she needed steroid injections every few months to flatten them.

To pass time, she watched a lot of Taiwanese and Hong Kong serial dramas on television.

But she did not just look out for herself. She also joined the hospital's burns support group after her discharge and now volunteers to visit burn victims.

This month, she will join other survivors and staff from the SGH Burns Centre in The Parade For Hope segment of the OCBC Cycle Singapore 2013 to raise funds for needy transplant patients and awareness about organ and tissue donation. The event will take place on April 26 at the F1 Pit Building.

Those who wish to donate to Truefund, a fund for needy transplant patients managed by SingHealth Foundation, can visit www.simplygiving.com.

Miss Lee, now 40 and working as a senior window display artist in a shopping mall, has not ridden a motorbike since her accident.

But she has regained most of the strength in her legs and no longer needs medication and her pressure garment.

She still experiences the occasional itch and some tightness in her leg muscles - she finds squatting uncomfortable - but has learnt to live with them.

She continues to go for steroid injections every few months. Her scars often draw stares from strangers, but she says this does not bother her. She still goes about in bermuda shorts, making it a point to wear them when she visits burn victims at the SGH Burns Centre.

"I want to encourage them by showing them that burn victims can also live a normal life," she said.

leawee@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 4, 2013

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