Back from the brink of death with a new heart

'Ink-in-the-veins' journalist Seah Chiang Nee clocks 10 to 12-hour days, churning out work from home for newspapers and radio.
'Ink-in-the-veins' journalist Seah Chiang Nee clocks 10 to 12-hour days, churning out work from home for newspapers and radio. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The heart that beats the rhythm of life in Mr Seah Chiang Nee's chest came to reside there only 10 years and five weeks ago. Before that, it belonged to an Australian teenager whose life ended in an accident.

It also ended a countdown to death for Mr Seah, who was then hooked up to machines, his body racked by pain, watching in terror at the machine which showed his own heart was barely moving.

Today, the "ink-in-the-veins" journalist, 55, works 10 to 12-hour days, churning out six columns a week (in English and translated into Chinese) for Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, articles for Malaysian newspaper The Star, and recording his radio programme, A Journalist's Notebook, for One FM 90.5.

He wakes up early, has breakfast - like a low-fat, low-salt curry puff - and heads for his office in his Serangoon Gardens home.

On one wall, rows of carefully-maintained newspaper clippings testify to his dedication to his craft. The TV is on because there is a news programme.

Much younger journalists would feel humbled by the energy of this former chief editor of the now-defunct Singapore Monitor tabloid.

Yet, 12 years ago, Mr Seah thought the end was near. One day, while browsing in a bookshop, he felt the room spin like a merry-go-round. He dismissed it, but two weeks later, he had a heart attack.

Doctors diagnosed cardiac myocarditis, a viral infection that grips the heart and affects only a dozen people here a year. The then-chief editor of the new afternoon paper was told he had only two years to live.

He spent two years in and out of hospitals. Work was cut to five to six hours daily, and that was when he was well.

And the pain. Says Mr Seah: "At that point, I had written off my life completely and waited to die quickly.

"Then a thought hit me: It's too early to die, my kid is too young!

"When the pain was really terrible, I just wanted death to claim me to stop the pain. The moment I accepted death, I was no longer frightened."

The terror of death was stopped by numbness of emotions, not serenity. "I don't think one can ever feel serene about death."

It is true that in life's major events, be it birth, marriage or relationships, people receive instruction and advice. But when one confronts death, one is totally unprepared.

He says: "I didn't think of God, I thought of humanity - my loved ones."

How could he leave his wife, Pat, and his son, Pei Kwang, then only six?

Then he got lucky. In 1985, he met the late Dr Victor Chang, a leading heart surgeon, who was in Singapore as then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's distinguished visitor.

Dr Chang, a Sydney surgeon who would later be murdered in 1991, told Mr Seah: "Come see me in Sydney, I'll see what I can do."

Friends, bankers, journalists and the Lee Foundation helped raise $120,000 to finance the operation, drugs and a four-month stay in Australia.

But his condition worsened, and he was given only one more week to live.

Then he got lucky again. A donor heart was available and was transplanted into his body on Oct 12, 1985, making him South-east Asia's first heart transplant patient.

He recalls: "For the first three weeks, I slept with my hands clasped across my chest, afraid I would lose the new heart."

He asks: "Do you know your life is decided by this thing beating, whether you're eating, sleeping, standing? The moment it goes, everything is finished. Your distinctions, your bank account, your car..."

Such is the frailty of life, he realised, that little things are not worth getting angry over. "Winning arguments, rude drivers, long queues - they don't bother me so much now. But I cry easily. The programme Extraordinary People makes me cry."

AFTER the operation, he had to fight two dangers: rejection of the new organ by the body and infection of the heart.

Dr Ong Kim Kiat, a cardiothoracic surgeon in private practice, says 80 to 90 per cent of people with transplanted hearts survive the first year. Of the 12 cases here, two died in that crucial first year.

"Otherwise, patients can lead normal lives. They don't become invalids."

Other than eating low-salt, low-fat meals, exercising moderately, and taking his high-blood pressure, cholesterol, and anti-rejection pills, Mr Seah leads pretty much a normal life.

"I don't live in a bubble. If people smoke around me, I just stand further away."

Ever the pragmatist, he has not suddenly become a religious person.

A statue of Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesh in his office and one of Buddha in his living-room were bought because he liked them, he is quick to say.

"Yet, sometimes, I think if we look around us, how the world, the birds, flowers, come together so beautifully, there must be a stronger force behind it.

"And the teenager who gave me his heart, I wonder what he looked like. I would like to meet him to thank him."

Meet him where? "I don't know. Maybe there is an after-life. But I don't worry about that. All I want to do now is continue to write."