Grateful to be alive

'Twenty years is a long time. That's 30 per cent of my whole life,' Mr Seah Chiang Nee said.
'Twenty years is a long time. That's 30 per cent of my whole life,' Mr Seah Chiang Nee said.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE  - Mr Seah Chiang Nee's heart is filled with gratitude.

The 65-year-old newspaper veteran became South-east Asia's longest-surviving heart transplant patient yesterday, the 20th anniversary of his landmark surgery.

In contrast to the fanfare surrounding his successful operation at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney on Oct 12, 1985, yesterday was spent quietly at the Singapore Heart Centre, where he underwent a routine heart scan.

Speaking to The Straits Times later at his home in Serangoon Gardens, Mr Seah said he's grateful to be alive. 'Twenty years is a long time. That's 30 per cent of my whole life,' he said.

His heart condition, caused by a viral infection, had changed his life drastically. The then chief editor of the defunct Singapore Monitor had to give up his job and his health deteriorated quickly.

He was hospitalised for three months in Singapore, went to Australia and in less a month, found a match in a 17-year-old Australian teenager who had just died.

A LONG LEASE OF LIFE
'Twenty years is a long time. That's 30 per cent of my whole life.'
- MR SEAH CHIANG NEE

Recollecting the difficult period, his wife, personal assistant Patricia Seah, who is in her 50s, said he went downhill quickly. 'Within three months, he became so weak. He was pale, had lost a lot of weight and was in so much pain doctors had to inject him with morphine.'

She said she was prepared for the worst. The odds were against him. At the time, few patients survived complex surgeries. A doctor even tried to talk the couple out of it, saying Mr Seah 'would be hooked up on a machine'.

'But we went ahead. There's always hope and chance,' she said.

And Singaporeans, fellow journalists, family and friends rallied behind him, helping to raise the $120,000 for his surgery. Their support spurred Mr Seah not to 'waste' his second chance at life, he said.

'As a heart transplant patient, you need willpower. You need the will to live, to fight the battle. This means having to control your diet, take your medicine regularly and stay fit. Some people cannot take it and they give up,' he said.

So for the past 20 years, Mr Seah has been religiously showing up for his medical check-up every three months, taking brisk walks thrice a week, and popping a dozen pills a day. 'I follow a strict diet. No red meat, no soup kambing, and no char kway teow. I had to give up my favourite deep-fried foods,' he said.

Besides the cost of check-ups, the medications are costly - about a few hundred dollars a month, said Mrs Seah. 'We are using our savings now to pay the bills. It's quite tough. Subsidies on some drugs can help.'

Sticking to the routine was frustrating at times, but Mr Seah could not let down his supporters and the heart donor. 'I felt a certain responsibility towards those who have helped. There were so many people waiting in line for a heart, but I was the one to get it. So, I must take proper care of myself,' he said.

THE WILL TO KEEP GOING
'As a heart transplant patient, you need willpower. You need the will to live, to fight the battle ... Some people cannot take it and they give up.'
- MR SEAH CHIANG NEE

The couple also encourage others to pledge their organs. Mr Seah has never found out the identity of the boy who gave him his new lease on life, except that he was a 17-year-old Australian. Australian law forbids the disclosure of donor and recipient identities.

All that medication keeps Mr Seah alive, but it is also taking its toll on his kidneys, which he said are functioning at only 40 per cent of capacity. And five weeks ago, he fractured his right arm after falling during his morning walk.

But death is nothing to fear. 'I've got an extra 20 years of life already. I've lived life on a fast track, I've seen deaths and wars. Sooner or later I will have to go, it's no big deal,' he said, matter-of-factly.

As a journalist, Mr Seah covered the Vietnam war, held various foreign postings, and travelled widely. The self-confessed news junkie has been writing a column twice a week for Malaysia's English-language newspaper, The Star, for the past 20 years.

And he maintains his website - www.littlespeck.com - spending about 14 hours a day on the computer, surfing and publishing articles on various subjects. 'All my life, I want to know about everything. I get really angry with myself if I missed any news,' he said.

His 'mission in life' is to see his 25-year-old son, Pei Kwang, graduate from the University of Michigan, where he is pursuing a life sciences course.

His free time is spent with his wife, watching movies and going for walks. Yesterday, the loving couple shared a simple home-cooked dinner of steamed chicken and stir-fried bittergourd.

They take each day as it comes. 'Life is fragile,' said Mr Seah. 'It's important to be balanced. No point chasing after the rainbow, getting the 10 straight As, the Mercedes. At the end of the day, when you die, you have to leave everything behind.'

arlina@sph.com.sg