After suffering a stroke, cooking doyenne Violet Oon rethinks her life

After suffering a stroke, Ms Violet Oon uses a walking stick in case she loses her balance. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
After suffering a stroke, Ms Violet Oon uses a walking stick in case she loses her balance. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Illness leads cooking doyenne Violet Oon to rethink her life

Apart from the walking stick and a slightly stiff gait, there are no signs that Singapore's cooking doyenne Violet Oon suffered a stroke and stayed about a month in hospital.

The 65-year-old, who has a food consultancy business and, with her two children, runs Violet Oon's Kitchen in Bukit Timah Road, had been down with a bout of flu a few days before the stroke on June 13. On that day, she says she felt dizzy at about 10.30pm and had no sense of balance on the left side of her body.

Her son, Yiming Tay, 32, took her to Singapore General Hospital (SGH), where she was told she had had a cerebellar stroke. This is when blood flow to the cerebellum, the lower part of the brain, is interrupted. That part of the brain controls balance, among other functions.

Mr Tay says he was worried but his mother was rather more calm.

She says: "I was so thankful that it was just balance. I could have lost so many other things. I was neither scared nor distressed, just matter-of-fact about it all and thinking what I would be capable of doing after all that."

The former journalist describes herself as a model patient, who ate her bland hospital diet of pureed meat, vegetables and rice without complaint. Showing a photo of one of her meals, she says: "I ate whatever they gave me. I was so obedient."

She says she was reassured by the neurologist who treated her. "She was amazing. She told me: 'I assure you, you will get out of here walking.'"

The nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists were also determined to make that happen, she says. Her daughter Su-lyn Tay, 38, adds: "The doctor was so confident that she would definitely be back to normal in six months."

When Ms Oon asked if she would need a walking frame and a wheelchair, both of which her children had borrowed so she could use them when she was discharged, she was told: "No, you are Violet Oon, you can walk by yourself."

She says: "I'm happy they were appalled when I asked and that they were quite fierce. They wanted us to be independent."

In hospital, she did exercises three times a day - bending down to pick things from the floor, getting out of a chair without support, climbing chairs and playing badminton using a balloon, among other things. The idea, she says, was for the brain to grow new fibres to replace the ones lost in the stroke.

She even attended a baking class, making cookies and then washing up after that. At these sessions, she says she was inspired by older, feisty patients determined to get back on their feet. "If an 85-year-old can do it, how could I not?"

Initially, she says, she was wobbly on her feet, walking like "a drunken sailor" or like "a robot". Now, she has a walking stick only in case she loses her balance.

She goes for physiotherapy twice a week at Ren Ci Community Hospital and exercises at home daily with the help of a trained caregiver.

Since her discharge, she has been cooking for herself, using her skills to make healthy, good-tasting food. These include a white bean and tuna salad, a stir-fried vegetable dish and tofu adobo. She hopes to collect the recipes in a book.

The grandmother of three has taken herself off the daily running of the restaurant, so that she can spend time training the chefs and testing recipes she, her mother and aunts have collected. These include durian dodol, Nonya achar and pineapple upside down cake that may be introduced in the restaurant.

She says: "Before, I was so busy 14 hours a day, I didn't have time to think about development, work on new dishes."

The stroke has also made her think about the next chapter of her life. "Now that I have seen and understood much more about the lives that the physically and mentally challenged go through, my next step is to see how I can contribute with my experience and new knowledge to this part of our society," she says.

For starters, she is working with the Down Syndrome Association Singapore to teach its young adults cooking skills and find a way for them to earn some money when they are older. She also plans to join the Stroke Club at SGH to see how her experience can help other survivors.

There are also plans for a book she had wanted to write a decade ago, when she was 55. The book was to have been titled Fabulous At 55 and would be a memoir with recipes, what she calls "my life in food since the day I was born".

However, 55 passed, and then she thought she might call it Scrumptious At 60. Now, she is thinking of Scrumptious At 66, to be ready next May.

All of this sounds like life has gone back to normal for the multi-tasking, high-energy Ms Oon. Yet, some things have changed

"Before, I would ignore the tiredness. Now when I feel tired, I rest," she says.

"I think a lot of us have to think of ourselves more, but not in a self-centred way. When you have a career and enjoy working, taking time off to smell the roses doesn't make you less productive.