Birthday joy for grandma, the longest-staying Covid-19 patient at NUH

Madam Choy Wai Chee, who turns 58 today, celebrating her birthday in the National University Hospital on Friday, with the staff and doctors who tended to her.
Madam Choy Wai Chee, who turns 58 today, celebrating her birthday in the National University Hospital on Friday, with the staff and doctors who tended to her. PHOTO: NUH
Madam Choy Wai Chee, who turns 58 today, celebrating her birthday in the National University Hospital on Friday, with the staff and doctors who tended to her. With her are (from left) nurse manager Kong Yingying, Professor Lim Tow Keang and assistant
Madam Choy Wai Chee, who turns 58 today, celebrating her birthday in the National University Hospital on Friday, with the staff and doctors who tended to her. With her are (from left) nurse manager Kong Yingying, Professor Lim Tow Keang and assistant professors Kollengode Ramanathan and Winn Maung Maung Aye. PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL

Grandmother Choy Wai Chee has more reason than most to celebrate her birthday today given she has been in a life-and-death fight against Covid-19 for the past four months.

At one point, doctors told her distressed family they had to be prepared for her demise.

But she pulled through and marks her 58th birthday today in the National University Hospital (NUH), where she is its longest-staying Covid-19 patient.

Madam Choy was in high spirits when The Sunday Times visited yesterday, even though she was unable to talk for long as she had a tube in her throat.

She gesticulated animatedly and conversed by writing her responses on a piece of paper, noting: "Doctors saved me."

Madam Choy, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 after returning from overseas in March, said she was "not scared" of being in hospital as she had spent a year in one when she was 12 to fix her curved spine.

"Hospital is like my second home," she joked, adding that she has also given birth four times. Her children are aged between 19 and 31 and she has a two-year-old granddaughter.

It was her curved spine that contributed, in part, to the "severe manifestation" of the disease, said Dr See Kay Choong, a senior consultant with NUH's division of respiratory and critical care.

The bent spine has resulted in Madam Choy having smaller lungs, which caused her to suffer from a more severe lung disease.

She was transferred to NUH from Ng Teng Fong General Hospital on March 31 as she was one of the few Covid-19 patients whose condition deteriorated even after being put on a mechanical ventilator.

The hospital then put her on a more intensive breathing support system called the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

The ECMO machine takes over the role of the diseased lung and artificially oxygenates the blood outside the body. Madam Choy is one of five Covid-19 patients who have been put on ECMO.

FIGHTING TO LIVE

I want to recover faster, I cannot rely on (my doctors and nurses) so much, I want to do things myself... If you want to live longer, you have to fight.

MADAM CHOY WAI CHEE, who has been battling Covid-19 for the past four months.

HUSBAND'S REACTION

When I broke the news about her critical state, saying that she might die, her husband actually broke down, it was very difficult to console him over the phone... During the birthday cake cutting... He was in tears that... he could see her alive (and well) again.

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR KOLLENGODE RAMANATHAN, on telling Madam Choy's husband about her condition earlier on, and seeing him at her birthday celebration. 

 
 
 
 

A team of more than 50 medical and paramedical personnel, including intensive care unit nurses and perfusionists who ran the ECMO machine, had tended to Madam Choy, but initially it seemed that she was not responding well to treatment.

The virus caused her liver, heart and kidneys to dysfunction and Madam Choy was also bleeding continuously from the numerous tubes that were attached to help her breathe.

Assistant Professor Kollengode Ramanathan, a senior consultant with NUH's department of cardiac, thoracic and vascular surgery, recalled the moment he had to tell Madam Choy's husband that she might not make it.

"When I broke the news about her critical state, saying that she might die, her husband actually broke down. It was very difficult to console him over the phone," he said.

Prof Ramanathan added that he was reminded of just how dire a state Madam Choy had been in when he saw her husband during a surprise birthday celebration the hospital staff threw for her on Friday.

"During the birthday cake cutting... He was in tears that... he could see her alive (and well) again," said Prof Ramanathan.

Madam Choy's birthday wish is to fully recover and be discharged, which could happen around the middle of next month.

She said she plans to "eat a lot" when she is well, listing wonton noodles, chee cheong fun and dim sum as some of the treats she has missed the most.

For now, fighting "boredom" is her biggest problem in hospital. She used to work full time in the Agency for Integrated Care and is not used to having so much time on her hands.

Madam Choy whiles away her time sewing face masks for her granddaughter and doing other assorted handicrafts.

"I want to recover faster, I cannot rely on (my doctors and nurses) so much, I want to do things myself," she said, adding that a strong desire to see her family members gathered together again is spurring her on.

Her family have been visiting her, but are restricted from gathering due to a cap on visitor numbers.

There is another special day to look forward to as well, with a grandson due in October.

As Madam Choy says: "If you want to live longer, you have to fight."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline 'Birthday joy for longest-staying Covid-19 patient at NUH'. Print Edition | Subscribe