Covid-19: The first 100 days in S'pore

At 102, she fought and beat Covid-19

Madam Yap Lay Hong enjoying durian puffs yesterday, a day after her discharge from hospital. 818 Durians owner Goh Meng Chiang had provided durian puffs and cakes for the Lee Ah Mooi residents and staff.
Madam Yap Lay Hong enjoying durian puffs yesterday, a day after her discharge from hospital. 818 Durians owner Goh Meng Chiang had provided durian puffs and cakes for the Lee Ah Mooi residents and staff. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALAN HO

As she was wheeled into Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home on Friday, Madam Yap Lay Hong was greeted with beaming faces and cries of joy from staff and residents.

The Grand Old Lady of the Home smiled calmly and appeared bemused by the fuss.

But when dinner was served, she ate heartily. Soon, she was nodding off, ready for bed.

Yesterday, Madam Yap was alert again as she bit into her favourite food: durian puff, a weekly treat before she was hospitalised on April 1.

At age 102, Madam Yap is Singapore's oldest coronavirus survivor. She was discharged from Tan Tock Seng Hospital two days ago.

It is the second time in her long life that a global pandemic has crossed her path.

She was born in 1918 during the Spanish flu - the world's worst pandemic - which reportedly killed more than 50 million people worldwide, including 2,800 in Singapore.

Covid-19, however, has been far less deadly. So far, it has infected more than 17,000 people in Singapore and proved fatal for 17.

Her return to Lee Ah Mooi did not surprise her family.

A fortnight ago, in a 10-minute video call with the younger of her two daughters, she complained about the discomfort of having to stay in bed all the time, as ordered by the doctors.

Her second son, Mr Alan Ho, 72, who was listening in, tells The Sunday Times: "My mother was grumpy and kept complaining. If she can do that, I think she is okay."

Madam Yap was among 16 residents at Lee Ah Mooi who caught the bug - a cluster that led to a ban on visitors to all nursing and old folks' homes in Singapore.

Mr Ho remembers vividly the events surrounding the fateful day.

A doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital had called him with the news at 1am, less than 48 hours after he had visited her on the afternoon of March 30.

"I had brought her some biscuits and yogurt. She was well and we shared a cup of coffee. I spent about two hours with her. As usual, she did not like me to stay too long and told me to go home."

Mr Ho has not spoken to her even after her discharge, but he draws comfort from knowing she is eating and resting well.

"I was told she is a little confused and misses her family," he says.

During her one-month stay in Tan Tock Seng, Madam Yap did not have respiratory problems, was not in intensive care and did not have a fever or cough, according to two of her children.

Mr Ho believes her strong immunity helped her overcome the virus.

Madam Yap is among the rare centenarians worldwide battling Covid-19. The oldest to survive is a Dutch woman in the Netherlands, 107-year-old Cornelia Ras, who recovered in about 20 days.

Two Lee Ah Mooi residents, however, both aged 86, have died.

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"My mother is very feisty. She is old but very independent. She is deaf in her right ear but can hear with her left ear. Her eyesight is still good. Her only weakness is her bones," says Mr Ho, a retired office manager.

Madam Yap fell and broke her hip four or five years ago and had hip replacement surgery, he adds. But she can move around with a walker.

People often ask him for the secret to her long life and good health.

"I tell them she doesn't smoke or drink or eat fast food. She cooked most of her meals herself until she came to stay in Lee Ah Mooi," he says.

She sometimes indulges in her favourite hawker food such as prawn noodles and lontong (rice cakes in vegetable stew). She also loves durians, bak kwa (barbecued pork) and coffee.

"I buy her durians when I visit her at the Home every week," he adds.

Before her hip surgery, Madam Yap was still taking the bus on her own and visiting the casino at Marina Bay Sands. "Playing the roulette was her favourite pastime," says Mr Ho.

He believes the years of taking the stairs up and down her fourth-floor Housing Board flat in Tiong Bahru have kept her fit.

She lived in the four-room flat for 55 years before moving to Lee Ah Mooi in Thomson Lane.

Madam Yap was barely 18 when she wed fishmonger Ho Peng Yee in an arranged marriage.

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Like most of her generation, she did not go to school, stayed home to raise her children, and made kueh and cookies to supplement the family's income.

She had five children - three boys and two girls. Her oldest, a son, died of a heart attack six years ago, aged 72; her youngest, also a son, is aged 66. She is a grandmother to 11, who have given her 13 great-grandchildren.

Mr Ho says they used to live in an attap house in Havelock Road. After the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 destroyed part of their home, they moved to the Tiong Bahru flat in Guan Chuan Street.

Most afternoons, Madam Yap would play cards with elderly folk in the estate.

Widowed about 18 years ago, she lived alone in the flat while her oldest son lived next door to keep an eye on her. He died in 2014 in Brunei while on a business trip.

"My brother was her favourite. She was very sad and kept finding someone to blame for his death. All we could do was console her," says Mr Ho.

Two years later, her hip surgery slowed her and she wanted to move to an old folks' home - which she did in 2018, he adds.

At Lee Ah Mooi, she shared a room with seven others. She hardly talked to her room-mates and other residents, except during community activities when they would do colouring or drawing together, says Mr Ho.

"She is fiercely independent and mobile even at the age of 102. She takes daily walks and bathes herself under supervision. Her daily lifestyle and overcoming Covid-19 are a true testament to her resilience and tenacity," says Mr Then Kim Yuan, administrator of the Home. "Her story shines a light of hope for all of us overcoming this battle as a nation and community."

Mr Ho says: "I am anxious to see my mother again and to bring her her favourite durian fruit."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 03, 2020, with the headline At 102, she fought and beat Covid-19. Subscribe