Ugandan acid victim happy to go home, sad to leave Singapore

Ms Allen with celebrity chef Willin Low, who helped to raise funds for her trip to Singapore, and nurse Lynn Wood, who spent time with her every day. Ms Allen organised a party, with the help of nurse Lynn Wood (seated, second from left), to thank do
Ms Allen with celebrity chef Willin Low, who helped to raise funds for her trip to Singapore, and nurse Lynn Wood, who spent time with her every day. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Ms Allen with celebrity chef Willin Low, who helped to raise funds for her trip to Singapore, and nurse Lynn Wood, who spent time with her every day. Ms Allen organised a party, with the help of nurse Lynn Wood (seated, second from left), to thank do
Ms Allen organised a party, with the help of nurse Lynn Wood (seated, second from left), to thank doctors, nurses and other people who helped her in Singapore. Dr Cheong is seated on the right.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LYNN WOOD

Doctors unable to restore her vision but manage to carry out medical procedures to ease her suffering

Early this morning, Ms Namale Allen left Singapore after four months without the miracle she had wished for: the restoration of her sight, lost after a horrifying and disfiguring acid attack in her home country of Uganda.

Her trip was, however, not in vain. A team of plastic surgeons at Tan Tock Seng Hospital performed about 10 operations and procedures to help relieve many of the complications which have been plaguing her since the attack two years ago.

She also left with a treasure trove of new friendships, happy memories of kindness from people of different nationalities and from different walks of life, as well as an unwavering resolve to live life more meaningfully and positively.

"I am so, so happy because people have been so nice to me. I know I am not alone, so many people love me, they counsel me and that makes me strong. I want to thank all the doctors and nurses and everybody who has helped me," said the 27-year-old former hairdresser, reeling off a litany of names.

Ms Allen was cheeky and chatty and glowed with confidence when she met The Sunday Times on Friday, a far cry from the strong but subdued and apprehensive woman who arrived here last October.

She was five months pregnant when a young man she did not know threw a large amount of acid on her outside her home in Kampala - the capital city of Uganda - one May evening in 2014 .

Her four-year-old daughter, whom she was carrying on her hip, escaped with minor injuries. Although she and the baby she was carrying survived, the attack blinded her and melted her face, reducing her eyes to two pinholes. She needs plugs to breathe through her collapsed nose.

Large unsightly keloids covered her neck, arms and shoulders, making movement difficult and painful.

Her husband disappeared, leaving her and her two daughters to fend for themselves.

Her plight came to the attention of humanitarian and social activist Lynsay Lewis, who tried to seek medical help for her throughout Uganda.

After The Straits Times published a story about Ms Allen's plight last August, readers and good Samaritans including celebrity chef Willin Low and a group of expatriate wives raised about $80,000 through several online donation drives for her medical expenses and her trip to Singapore.

Ms Allen was hoping that prominent Singaporean eye surgeon Donald Tan could help her regain her sight through osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis (OOKP). Also known as "tooth-in-eye" surgery, OOKP involves reconstructing a new eye with a tiny plastic lens and one of the patient's own teeth.

She was, however, unsuitable for the operation because her cornea, eyeballs and optic nerves were too badly damaged.

However, in late October, a five-member plastic surgery team, led by Dr Cheong Ee Cherk, performed a series of about 10 procedures on her to help alleviate the pain she has been suffering.

Among other things, she found it difficult to eat and talk, and could not move her neck easily because of her scars.

Dr Cheong told The Sunday Times: "Allen stayed for about seven weeks and went into the operating theatre 10 times for various procedures. These included various surgeries and also multiple episodes of cleansing the wounds and changing the dressings for the wounds.

"We discharged her only after all her wounds have healed and skin grafts are stable, with minimal risk of secondary infection which could potentially lead to secondary skin graft loss."

One of the most complicated procedures, added Dr Cheong, involved revising the scars around her mouth.

"We had to improve the opening of the mouth without further compromising the ability of the lips to prevent drooling of saliva and leakage of food contents. It was also very challenging to separately manage the peri-oral wounds and the large neck/chest wound which were very close to each other," said the doctor who, together with his team members, donated their time.

Except for an episode of minor infection, Ms Allen managed swimmingly and was often in good humour.

Mr Low said: "She listened to the radio every morning and one day she asked me, 'Where is this PIE? Why are there so many accidents there?'"

Senior staff nurse June Kue, 31, said it could not have been easy for Ms Allen, especially when she was subjected to suction dressing on the neck and chest.

"She was very strong and remained very cheerful. She sang along to the radio when having her breakfast, and could tell the names of the nurses from their voices."

She had no lack of visitors in TTSH, some of whom would come to braid her hair and paint her nails.

Ms Lynn Wood, a nurse with a dermatology clinic, spent time with her every day and helped her relax by getting her to mould clay.

After she was discharged, two doctors at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital ingeniously devised a prosthetic nose attached to a pair of sunglasses for her.

Mr Low joked: "I didn't wish her Happy New Year. I wished her a Happy New Nose."

On Christmas Day last year, she met blind activist Ron Chandran-Dudley, who died a few days later.

"But his wife was so touched by her story that she had promised to get in touch with blind associations to help Allen continue her rehabilitation in Uganda," said Mr Low.

Although she is happy about going home, she is sad to leave Singapore where she has encountered much kindness.

Strangers have come up to offer her chocolates in hawker centres, and taxi drivers have given her free rides.

Meanwhile, she is very clear about what she has to do when she goes home.

"I will spend two months with my mother and then think about how to start a new life alone with my daughters," she says.

She wants to learn Braille, how to use a walking stick and hopefully start a business

"What I want most is to be a voice and fight for the rights for other acid attack victims in my country. We have to stop these attacks."

SONG FOR NAMALE

A teenager sings the song she had composed for Ms Allen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Ugandan acid victim happy to go home, sad to leave S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe