It Changed My Life: The day I didn't feel pain, I'd be dead': Veera Sekaran on coping with rare nerve disorder

Above: Mr Veera started Greenology, which develops ideas for green walls and urban farms and offers horticultural consultancy services.
Above: Mr Veera started Greenology, which develops ideas for green walls and urban farms and offers horticultural consultancy services. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Mr Harrison (second from left), seen in this photo taken in Gabon in West Africa, often ropes in Mr Veera (second from right) to work with him on zoo projects in other countries.
Mr Harrison (second from left), seen in this photo taken in Gabon in West Africa, often ropes in Mr Veera (second from right) to work with him on zoo projects in other countries. PHOTO: VEERA SEKARAN

Doctors can't cure Veera Sekaran of rare nerve disorder so he devises his own treatment

Four years ago, Mr Veera Sekaran was struck by Parsonage Turner Syndrome, a rare disorder which has been described as the most painful in neurology.

The condition, which affects fewer than two in 100,000 people, is due to autoimmune inflammation of the brachial plexus, a network of nerves originating near the neck and shoulders. In severe cases, affected muscles could atrophy; paralysis could set in.

That was what happened to Mr Veera, who experienced excruciating pain and could barely move his arms.

"I couldn't eat or drink; it was very difficult," he says, adding that he lost nearly 15kg because of what he was going through.

Doctors and physiotherapists could do nothing for him except prescribe painkillers; they told him his nerves were dead.

He decided to take matters into his own hands. "I gave up on the medication. I told myself I needed to feel the pain because the day I didn't feel pain, I'd be dead," the 54-year-old recalls.

Besides seeking acupuncture treatments, he forced himself to use his arms and devised his own strengthening exercises such as repotting plants and moving them around in his nursery.

His tenacity paid off. Although he is still seized occasionally by pain, he has regained 80 per cent of the strength in his arms.

"I told myself I must not give up, especially not after what I have been through," he says.

Indeed, he has wrestled with poverty and weathered many other odds to be where he is today, the founder of a company which not only champions the green cause, but also helps the marginalised, people with disabilities and the elderly.

The fifth of nine children of a road sweeper and a domestic worker, he grew up in Sembawang Naval Base. Although his father provided for the family, he liked his tipple too much. "We were pretty scared of him because he would get violent when he got drunk," says Mr Veera.

His elder brother, the second in the family, hanged himself when a couple of his friends played a prank on him on the day his PSLE results were released.

"He was on his way to school to collect his results when his friends told him he had failed. He couldn't take it because he was one of the smartest boys in school. He went into the toilet and hanged himself. He was only 12," he says.

"He was my father's favourite son. His death got my old man drinking more."

Already grappling with health woes including diabetes, his father fell into depression and died shortly after.

Saddled with seven children - one other brother died shortly after birth - to feed and educate, Mr Veera's illiterate mother went out to work as a domestic helper.

"My paternal uncle and my maternal aunt also came to live with us and helped to look after us," he recalls.

Deprivation marked his childhood. "I never had new school books or a schoolbag and all my school uniforms were hand-me- downs. I was wearing shorts which looked like skirts. I didn't have money for recess so I would sit in a corner and watch other people eat," he says.

Despite his circumstances, he was outstanding in his studies at Canberra Primary and Naval Base Secondary. Several of his teachers knew of his plight and came to his aid.

"In Primary 4, my teacher, Mrs Chee, decided to do something for me because she felt that I could not be making do without pen or books or a schoolbag. She got all my classmates to contribute whatever they could and when I came into class one day, I got a schoolbag, with a pencil case and a pen," he says.

To help the family out, the keen soccer player started taking on part-time jobs - from waiter to construction worker - when he was in his teens. For a stretch during his pre-university days at Victoria School, he worked as a coolie in a granite quarry at night.

"I was shovelling granite dust from 9pm to 3am. I would be completely covered in soot when I got back home. I had only a couple of hours' sleep before I had to wake up and take the bus to school," he says.

Mr Veera did well enough in his A levels to get admitted to the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"But my elder brother told me there was no point thinking about it because the family could not afford it. He told me I had to go look for a job," he says. Except for two who completed their O levels, most of his siblings left school early.

Just as he was about to leave the army and start working after completing his national service, he met a man who changed his life.

Mr Veera was sitting around with some pals who had bought him his first beer in a yacht club when he was introduced to lawyer Haridass Ajaib. When he told the latter he had to give up his spot in NUS, he was given an earful.

"He told me: 'What do you need? I'll pay all your university fees.'"

Mr Haridass honoured his promise. And that was how Mr Veera ended up majoring in botany and zoology at NUS.

When asked why he did what he did, Mr Haridass says: "I was also from the same kampung. An opportunity to go to university was hard to come by in those days, and he was someone with a lot of potential. I feel very good that I played a part in his life."

After a stint as a research assistant in NUS upon graduating in 1987, Mr Veera started working for Mandai Orchid Gardens.

"I was a farmer, working with all these old men, cultivating orchids for export and managing the show garden. I was the first Indian manager they had and I learnt how to speak Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese from them," he says before lapsing into almost pitch-perfect Cantonese to show he is not lying.

Three years later, his solid reputation got him an offer to start and manage an orchid plantation in the Seychelles. Although he enjoyed the work, he got upset when he found out that the plantation - which was getting money from the World Bank - was inflating prices and not paying its workers fairly.

"I was an idealist. So when the World Bank came, I pecah lubang," he says, using the Malay slang which means "to expose the truth".

Things changed overnight. He got death threats and had to sleep with a parang under his pillow.

One of his expatriate friends told him he was a marked man, so Mr Veera resigned, took his money and belongings and fled back to Singapore.

"Everything's okay now, I've been back to the Seychelles for work three times since," he says with a laugh.

Over the next two decades, Mr Veera honed his horticultural skills in various capacities in both the public and private sectors.

For a few years, he was assistant curator of horticulture at the Singapore Zoo where he worked closely with former chief Bernard Harrison on the Night Safari.

There were other stints: head of horticulture overseeing landscaping for all the airport terminals in Changi, and assistant director at the National Parks Board tasked with formulating programmes to professionalise the horticultural industry. He also managed a couple of landscape companies and became a consultant.

Mr Harrison, now a zoo design consultant based in Bali, says: "Whenever I need a good landscaping guy, I go to him. He's very responsible. We've worked on zoos in several places, including Gabon and Xiamen where he surprised the locals with his Hokkien."

In 2008, Mr Veera decided to strike out on his own and tendered for a 5,000 sq m piece of land in Farnborough Road near Changi Village. Greenology, he says, develops ideas and concepts for green walls and urban farms as well as offers horticultural consultancy services.

"When I got this land, I had very little money so I borrowed quite heavily," says the entrepreneur, who is married to a polytechnic lecturer with whom he has two children, aged 19 and 20.

Business was slow initially and it took about three years before he landed his first major horticultural project: the Singapore Formula One race. The joy he felt over Greenology finally turning the corner, however, was eclipsed by the diagnosis of his Parsonage Turner Syndrome (PTS). It came out of the blue one evening when he felt a searing pain in his shoulders and arms.

The excruciating pain grew progressively worse and reduced him to tears that night.

"I couldn't reach for my pockets; I couldn't feel my hands," says Mr Veera, who was examined by several doctors and put through several tests over a few days before he was diagnosed with PTS.

For a few weeks, his helplessness and the looks of pity from his workers got him into a funk but his inherent resilience soon kicked in. "I told myself I was not going to let it beat me. If I died doing what I like, so be it, but I was not going to give up."

He has, he says, always found it therapeutic working with plants and he turned to them again for rehabilitation. "I moved pots, I started with small actions, and I designed my own exercise equipment. With time, I started regaining strength," he says.

He also took the opportunity during this period to refine ideas for vertical green walls and urban farming systems. By 2013, the business was in good shape.

"Our products were doing well, I started hiring designers and engineers, and we landed big projects like Shaw Centre, The Heeren, Mediacorp and Changi General Hospital," says Mr Veera, adding that clients from Malaysia, the Philippines and the region also started knocking on his door. Today, Greenology has a staff of 40, and an annual turnover of about $2.8 million.

Mr Harrison says that despite his success, his pal never forgot to give back. "He's very good with people and because he had such a lucky break, he's always willing to give someone a chance."

Besides hiring ex-offenders, Mr Veera also opens up Greenology several times a week to a group of dementia patients and children with special needs.

"The value of gardening is proven; it changes people's lives. It makes them calmer, and a lot less stressed."

Friends, he says, have laughed at him and called him Santa Claus.

"I came from nothing. So if I make something, it's only right that I should give and pay it forward."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline ''The day I didn't feel pain, I'd be dead''. Print Edition | Subscribe