Generation Grit

Generation Grit: 'Doctor said I'd never walk again but I couldn't sit at home and wait to die'

A spinal cord inflammation while she was undergoing treatment for cancer upended Ms Yap Qian Yin's life for good. But somehow she found the will to go on and live large on the national stage, the 27-year-old tells The Straits Times in this series about millennials who inspire us with their courage and resilience. This is her story.

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Yap Qian Yin, 27, was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was four. She was fine until a relapse at 17 left her paralysed. Undeterred, she turned to sailing and won a gold medal at the 2015 Asean Para Games.
Yap Qian Yin, 27, was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was four. She was fine until a relapse at 17 left her paralysed. Undeterred, she turned to sailing and won a gold medal at the 2015 Asean Para Games. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

SINGAPORE - "I still remember clearly the day when the doctor told me, 'sorry you'll be unable to walk for the rest of your life'.

My mind went blank - I couldn't accept it and I kept crying. I was only 17 years old.

This was even worse than the relapse of leukaemia that had led to this.

I was diagnosed with leukaemia when I was four. It was treated and I was fine until I suffered a very intense pain near my spine one day. At the time I was in Secondary 4 at the Presbyterian High School.

I waited about a month before I saw the doctor. I went because it got so bad I couldn't even get out of bed.

They found out I had suffered a relapse of the leukaemia and it was a more aggressive form. I needed a bone marrow transplant.

Before the relapse, I was a happy girl preparing for my O levels and doing well in my studies. My world came crashing down.

But I was very lucky as my brother, who is four years older than me, donated his bone marrow to me. I'm the youngest of three children. My dad is a businessman and mum is a housewife.

I thought everything would go back to normal once I had the transplant, but it didn't.

My spinal cord became inflamed. I felt my legs weaken and it got progressively worse until I could neither stand up nor walk within a month or so. I also lost control of my bladder.

I was angry: Why did this have to happen to me?

I felt like I had lost my dignity as my family members now had to clean me up. It was humiliating.

I had to learn to do everything again, like go to the toilet by myself, and get from the bed to the wheelchair. It was like I had lost everything overnight.

One of my biggest fears was how to face my family and friends. My family, especially my mum, could not accept what had happened. I didn't want to be a burden, to trouble others and not be independent.

But the nurses at the National University Hospital gave me a lot of encouragement and they really took care of me. They were my guardian angels.

I don't know what kept me going but somehow, life had to go on. I couldn't sit at home and just wait to die.

As my immunity levels were very low, the doctors discouraged me from going back to school. I took my O levels as a private student, but I didn't do well.

Later I completed a diploma in finance management at Kaplan Higher Education Institute and found an administrative job with a human resources firm that allowed me to work from home. I worked in that firm for five years and I'm now a finance executive in a facility management firm.

I started sailing by chance.

I met Jovin Tan, a national para-sailor, at a swimming pool during a hydro-therapy session. He asked if I wanted to try sailing, but I was not keen at all. (Jovin suffers from cerebral palsy and is also a wheelchair user.)

But he was very persuasive and kept asking me until I said I would give it a try. It was very boring at first but I gradually came to see sailing as a mission of sorts.

Yap Qian Yin training in a new sport of wheelchair badminton at Ang Mo Kio Sport Hall. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

It was how I could prove to my mum that even though I was in a wheelchair, I could still do a lot with my life. That I can still enjoy my life. I'm not as weak as some might think.

My proudest moment was at the Asean Para Games in Singapore in 2015 when I won a gold medal. My mum was there and I'll never forget that smile on her face.

I also took part in the 2014 Asian Para Games where I won a gold medal together with Jovin and I went to the Paralympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Unfortunately, I had to withdraw from the Paralympics as I was suffering from hypothermia.

Sailing taught me many life lessons, such as no one can help you but yourself.

When you are out at sea, you are out there alone. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you have to rely on yourself to get through it.

Sports has trained me to be more disciplined and more mature.

About two years ago, I started to play wheelchair badminton. I like the excitement and intensity of the game and I now train three times a week for badminton and once a week for sailing. I like to keep myself busy.

It took me eight or nine years to truly accept my disability. I no longer think of all the ifs, like if only I could walk. I cannot change this fact and I have to move on.

When I go through bad times now, I tell myself that they won't last forever and that they, too, will pass."

Know of a Singaporean aged 35 or below who has shown grit amid life's adversities? E-mail us at

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