Generation Grit: Beneath that smile beats a heart of courage

At the age of 22, Mr Kevin Wong suffered from heart failure. Then he had two strokes, one of which impaired his language abilities. Life finally got better when he had a heart transplant in 2017.
Despite going through many setbacks, including two strokes in 2016, Mr Kevin Wong chose to focus on goals within his control, such as working hard at rehabilitation and thinking positive. After four years and two months, he received a new heart.
Despite going through many setbacks, including two strokes in 2016, Mr Kevin Wong chose to focus on goals within his control, such as working hard at rehabilitation and thinking positive. After four years and two months, he received a new heart.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

At the age of 22, Mr Kevin Wong had the heart of an old man that only a transplant could cure. He tells The Straits Times what kept him going, when years passed and no donor heart was in sight, in this series about millennials who inspire us.

Mr Kevin Wong, 29, is not one to dwell on his woes.

But the 15cm-long scar that runs down his chest is a permanent reminder of when his heart failed and of the long ordeal that followed.

His nightmare started in 2012, at the age of 22, when he felt terribly unwell one night after enjoying a steamboat dinner with his friends.

His worried parents bundled him into a taxi and took him to the Accident and Emergency Department when he did not stop vomiting and complained of severe stomach pains.

It was not the food poisoning they suspected, but much worse.

Doctors found he had dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and weak, and his heart was failing.

His doctor, Assistant Professor Tan Teing Ee, head of department of cardiothoracic surgery at the National Heart Centre Singapore, said the cause could be genetic, from other factors such as a viral infection, or unknown. But most patients are middle-aged or older at the disease's onset.

GRATEFUL FOR SECOND CHANCE

With a new heart, it's like a new lease of life. I can run now and I can play basketball. I feel like I'm a normal person again and I feel very grateful for a second chance.

MR KEVIN WONG, 29, whose heart woes started in 2012 at age 22. In 2016, he suffered two strokes.

Mr Wong went through a procedure to be fitted with an electronic device that helps to manage his heart rhythm and prevent sudden cardiac death.

But it did not change anything. He had to be hospitalised repeatedly. During one hospital stay, he lapsed into a coma.

Upon waking about a week later, he discovered that a life-saving device called a Heart Mate 2 had been implanted inside a pocket a surgeon had created in the muscle under his heart. His parents had given their consent while he was unconscious.

The Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) is an artificial pump that takes over the work of the heart, helping to maintain blood circulation.

To power it, he carried a 2kg controller everywhere with him in a sling bag.

He said: "I felt I was a bit suay ("unlucky" in Hokkien) as I'm the only person in my family with heart problems. I thought only older people in their 40s and 50s have heart failure. I was so young and I couldn't do sports like young people ."

The first year of adapting to life with the LVAD was the hardest.

He had to miss a year of school at Singapore Polytechnic, where he was an electrical and electronic engineering student, and was largely homebound, going out only for medical appointments. His mother, who is in her 50s, looked after him.

 
 

He kept his spirits up for he knew all would be well when he got a heart transplant.

The oldest of three children said his family and friends were supportive and encouraging. His father, who is in his 60s, is a senior production supervisor in a factory and his mother is a service staff member at fast-food chain McDonald's.

But as time passed, it became harder not to despair. While the average wait for a heart transplant is two years, Mr Wong waited four years and two months.

Only about 20 per cent of donor hearts are ultimately suitable for a transplant, said Dr Tan, and the lack of donors leads to a growing wait list for heart transplants.

So far, 82 patients have had heart transplants at the National Heart Centre Singapore - the only medical institution here to perform the procedure. The youngest was a 14-year-old girl.

Mr Wong said he waited so long for a heart that he began to lose hope. And he suffered more setbacks while waiting.

In 2016, he suffered two strokes, the second of which left him with difficulty with writing and language.

Dr Tan said stroke is a leading complication among patients with advanced heart failure who are fitted with the LVAD.

He said Mr Wong had to go through a prolonged period of occupational therapy and extensive speech training but he has made good progress.

Said Dr Tan: "I admire his strength and perseverance to overcome the many difficult and challenging episodes in his life."

Ms Kerk Ka Lee, senior manager at the National Heart Centre's Mechanical Circulatory Support, Heart and Lung Transplant Unit, said that after his second stroke, Mr Wong never gave up, but worked harder at the exercises prescribed by his speech therapist when others could not understand what he was saying.

Mr Wong made it through this dark time of his life by focusing on goals within his control, such as working hard at rehabilitation and thinking positive.

But more heartache was to come when he could not land a job for about a year after graduation, despite sending multiple resumes.

Some companies told him outright they were afraid he could not cope with the demands of the job.

By a stroke of luck, he was seated next to an employee of Transmedic, which distributes medical equipment such as the Heart Mate 2, during a fund-raising dinner for the National Heart Centre.

From him, Mr Wong learnt of job opportunities at Transmedic. He has been working there as a service engineer for the past four years.

He said: "I felt very relieved to get a job to help contribute to my family income."

  • GENERATION GRIT

  • Know of a Singaporean aged 35 or below who has shown grit amid life’s adversities? E-mail us at theresat@sph.com.sg  

Another setback was to come in early 2017, when he learnt that a donor heart had been found, only to be told later that it was unsuitable for transplantation.

In June 2017, he was awoken by a call in the middle of the night and told to go to the heart centre immediately as there was a heart waiting for him. A day later, his new heart was beating in his chest.

"With a new heart, it's like a new lease of life. I can run now and I can play basketball," he said. "I feel like I'm a normal person again and I feel very grateful for a second chance."

But he has not forgotten what it was like to struggle. He is on the executive committee of a support group for patients fitted with the LVAD and often visits patients to encourage them, said Ms Kerk.

For his courage and resilience, Mr Wong was honoured with a Singapore Health Inspirational Patient Award last year, given by the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre.

Mr Wong said: "I'm a happy-go-lucky person and I try to look on the bright side. I think it's better to think positive."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2019, with the headline 'Beneath that smile beats a heart of courage'. Print Edition | Subscribe