Caregiver to ailing dad, but she still shone in her studies

Despite having to juggle school and caregiving duties for her father, Maharah Abdul Mahid graduated from university with first class honours. Inspired by her father's doctor, she now hopes to pursue medicine.

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After her father fell ill, Ms Maharah Abdul Mahid had to balance school with caregiving duties. Despite her hardships, she graduated from Nanyang Technological University with first-class honours and found time to give back to the community.
Nights spent nursing her father did not stop Ms Maharah Abdul Mahid from doing very well in her biological sciences course at Nanyang Technological University. She graduated with first class honours two years ago.
Nights spent nursing her father did not stop Ms Maharah Abdul Mahid from doing very well in her biological sciences course at Nanyang Technological University. She graduated with first class honours two years ago. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Ms Maharah Abdul Mahid burned the midnight oil studying until 5am almost every day in her first two years at university.

It wasn't a problem of time management. She did it so that she could keep vigil over her ailing father, who had suffered from a recurring lung infection for nearly seven years.

Mr Abdul Mahid Mohamed Sidek was prone to high fevers, chills and muscle cramps. Several times a night, Ms Maharah would try to bring his fever down with a wet towel, and massage his legs to soothe the cramps.

"My dad disliked going to the hospital, so whenever we could, we would nurse him at home," she said.

At daybreak, her mother would get up while Ms Maharah would nap for a few hours in their three-room flat in Tampines before her long commute to campus.

She had kept up a similar routine since she was 13 years old.

Despite these challenges, and the onerous nature of the biological sciences course she was taking, she graduated with first class honours two years ago from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), joking that she took "lots of naps" during the day to pull the all-nighters.

"At my graduation ceremony, I felt all my sacrifices were worthwhile," said Ms Maharah, now 25.

"I knew that if my dad were there with me, he'd have been really proud of me."

Her father had died at the age of 57, just before her second-year university exams. It was a huge blow to the family.

"I remember telling someone that I didn't just lose my dad. I lost my best friend, my mentor, and that one person who could understand me," said Ms Maharah, who has an older sister.

Ms Maharah was only two months old when her father was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. His doctors had given him six months to live, but he made a recovery after undergoing radiotherapy.

Because of the treatment's side effects, bits of food he ate would enter his lungs easily, resulting in frequent infections.

His mouth stopped generating saliva, leaving him unable to swallow anything larger than a morsel of bread. His diet consisted mainly of porridge, small amounts of bread, and his sole indulgence, coffee.

Despite the setbacks, her father, whom she said was a "foodie", never lost his zest for life. "He would describe the food as if it was the most delicious on earth, even if it was just porridge," recalled Ms Maharah.

After her father's health took a turn for the worse while she was in secondary school, she had to "grow up fast", she said.

He had previously been a bus driver and a factory worker but could no longer work, so her mother, Madam Nooria Abdul Hameed, became the sole breadwinner.

To pay the bills, the former housewife took various jobs, including as a real estate agent, while Ms Maharah became her father's main caregiver.

Full-time work was difficult for Madam Nooria, who frequently had to take her husband to hospital.

At one point, she worked as a part-time childcare teacher in the day, and as a factory worker at night. For four hours of work at the factory, she was paid $20.

Sometimes, the family ate only rice and eggs for an entire week, but Ms Maharah was a child who never complained, said Madam Nooria, 58. "She always saw things in a positive way and understood without (making a fuss)," she said.

While at Junyuan Secondary School, Ms Maharah would do the household chores and prepare the meals when her mother was at work. Her older sister, who married young, had moved out of the house by the time Ms Maharah was 15 years old.

She remembered a particularly difficult time when the family had a mere $5 a week to live on.

"We had to make do with whatever food there was left at home and wait for the next pay cheque."

Still, she continued to shine. At Republic Polytechnic, she graduated in the top 10 per cent of her cohort with a diploma with merit in biomedical sciences. She then went on to take a biological sciences course at NTU.

"When I entered polytechnic, people told me that it was impossible to get into university (if you came from a polytechnic)."

But a family friend gave her a piece of advice that would stay with her for a long time. "He said, 'It doesn't matter where you go, just make sure you work hard and be the cream of the crop - and doors will open for you'. That was what I held on to and what kept me going, especially during the time when my father was sick and I had to juggle many things at once."

Said Madam Nooria: "She's not a gifted child who can play and still do well (at school). She worked hard throughout."

Despite having barely any time for herself, the devout Muslim found time to give back to the community.

After witnessing the financial situation of a family she had done volunteer work with, she wanted to reach out to similar families in need.

When she was about 18, with her parents' support, she co-founded a charity group called Mambaus Saadah, or Source of Hope, which provides financial aid and emotional support to needy families of cancer and kidney patients.

Earlier this year, the group worked with a boutique to distribute traditional clothing to families which could not afford new clothes for Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Once a year, it also holds a big bash to celebrate the birthdays of young patients and their siblings.

These projects are funded with donations from friends and relatives.

Said Ms Maharah: "I found that I wanted a life where I could be of as much benefit as possible to others.

"That is why any extra time that I have, I would rather spend it on helping others than anything else."


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She attributes her giving nature to her father, and it is something she hopes to embody as part of his legacy. Her father, even when ill, paid visits to a relative and a family friend diagnosed with cancer to cheer them up.

Now, Ms Maharah hopes to study medicine as a postgraduate student so that she can help others in the same way her father's doctor of 20 years, Dr Fong Kam Weng, had helped him. "Because of Dr Fong, I realised the difference you can make as a doctor in your patient's life, and that's what I really want to do."

She now intends to apply to medical school. "I've got only one life, and I want to spend it doing something I won't regret."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2019, with the headline Caregiver to ailing dad, but she still shone in her studies. Subscribe