Late surgeon's courage continues to inspire

Dr Alexandre Chao with daughters Berenice and Beatrice months before he died during the 2003 Sars epidemic. PHOTO: KOH WOON PUAY

ALTHOUGH talking about her late husband's death still brings back painful memories and tears, Associate Professor Koh Woon Puay continues to do so.

Her motivation: To use Dr Alexandre Chao's dedication and death as an example of the courage and commitment of Singapore's health-care workers.

Dr Chao, a 37-year-old Singapore General Hospital (SGH) vascular surgeon, succumbed to the virus during the 2003 epidemic.

The only son of the late forensic expert Chao Tzee Cheng had voluntarily cut short his leave in the United States to join his colleagues in the fight against Sars.

"I was there to witness his unwavering decision to return as soon as he heard the news about the outbreak in SGH," said Prof Koh, 45, who works at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.

"He advised me against going to Toronto for a research award and presentation at that time, but never did he once doubt his own decision to return to the frontline of danger," she added. There was a Sars outbreak in Canada too.

Ten years later, Dr Chao's legacy is now used as an example of courage in a Chinese textbook for Secondary 3 students.

His elder daughter Beatrice, 14, said the compassion and courage displayed by her father continue to inspire her.

"Courage does not come in the form of performing a big heroic act; rather, it is overcoming our own fears for the greater good," she said. The couple's younger daughter Berenice is 11 years old.

In 2008, Prof Koh married publisher and author George Tan, 55. Despite the heartbreak she has suffered, Prof Koh said she considers herself "blessed" because of her second shot at love and the fact that her children have a complete family.

Ms Lorena Tsai also found herself having to pick up the pieces when Sars suddenly claimed the life of pastor Simon Loh, her husband of 10 years.

The first year after Mr Loh's death was particularly hard - not just for her, but also for their children, who were just seven and eight years old at that time.

Their daughter, now 18, is in her second year in junior college, while their son, 17, is in secondary school.

"They avoided mentioning their father, so I would purposely talk about him to get them to open up," said Ms Tsai in Mandarin.

"I told them that it was God's will and that we would get through it together."

Singapore's very first Sars patient - a 23-year-old woman who was a church member - spread the illness to 39-year-old Mr Loh when he went to hospital to pray for her recovery.

Ms Tsai, 55, is now an assistant pastor at Faith Assembly of God Church in Kim Keat Road, and oversees the same Chinese ministry that Mr Loh used to lead.

She said Mr Loh remains present in their lives.

The family occasionally plays audio and video recordings of his sermons, "so that they still remember his voice and how he looks".

She is also a colleague of the aunt of the woman her late husband contracted Sars from.

"I have never felt angry or resentful towards her," she said.


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