Man who stared Death in the face

In 2014, Mongolian Puntsadorj Damdindorj suffered a stroke on the first day of his visit to Singapore. Doctors said he might remain in vegetative state forever but in nine months, he woke up.
Mr Puntsagdorj had 10 operations, and once stopped breathing in hospital.
Mr Damdindorj Puntsagdorj has made a full recovery; driving nearly 500km from Ulanbaatar to Sainshand, sometimes over rough terrain, was a cinch for him. ST PHOTO: WONG KIM HOH
Mr Damdindorj Puntsagdorj has made a full recovery; driving nearly 500km from Ulanbaatar to Sainshand, sometimes over rough terrain, was a cinch for him.
Mr Puntsagdorj had 10 operations, and once stopped breathing in hospital. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NARAYAN LAKSHMI

Mongolian's survival after being in vegetative state for months is a tale of hope, kindness, resilience

The sun is about to set, casting a golden glow on the rugged landscape of the Gobi Desert. I am standing at the foot of the Khan Bayanzurkh mountain in Sainshand in the province of Dornogovi in Mongolia, and looking at the summit with dread.

The locals call it Wishes Mountain. The spirit of a Gobi lord is believed to live at the top, and if you walk three times around the ovoo - sacred stones placed in a heap to serve as an altar - and toss vodka and other offerings, whatever you wish for apparently will come true.

To get to the peak, standing at 1,070m, I would have to navigate a pathway with a gazillion steps, a prospect my tired body does not relish. I have been up since 6am, and spent about seven hours travelling nearly 500km from Ulaanbaatar to Sainshand; my butt is sore from sharing the backseat of an SUV with two other people.

Unfortunately, Mr Damdindorj Puntsagdorj - or Damdin, as we know him - is already making his way up the mountain with nary a pause. His energy beggars belief, especially as he has spent more than seven hours behind the wheel, at times steering the SUV through intestine-jolting terrain.

Then again, what is scaling a puny mountain for a man who, just two years ago, was in a vegetative state, vacillating between life and death for nine months?

He is the reason I am in Mongolia with four of my Singaporean friends. We wanted to see the man who stared Death in the face and came back with a tale of hope, kindness and resilience.

It all started on Jan 5, 2014, when Damdin, 52, arrived in Singapore with his wife Otgo, 51, son Nagy, 29, and daughter Anu, 15, for a family vacation.

That night after dinner, the former deputy director of the Research Institute of Animal Husbandry in Mongolia grappled with a massive migraine. His face turned ghostly white and he started vomiting.

Because they were staying in a hotel in the Bugis area, his son took him to Raffles Hospital, where he collapsed. A CT scan revealed that he had an aneurysm which resulted in a bleeding stroke.

Another stroke hit two months later. He went into a coma twice, and was in a vegetative state during the six months he spent at Singapore General Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

A strapping Mongolian who tipped the scales at 110kg before this, he lost more than 40kg during this period.

According to his family, he also once stopped breathing and had 10 operations to, among other things, secure the aneurysm, manage brain infection and treat cerebrospinal fluid build-up.

Dr Nicole Keong was one of the doctors who treated him in Singapore.

"He was critically ill for most of his stay here and his medical management was complex," says the neurosurgeon at the National Neuroscience Institute.

The odds for such patients, she adds, are not good. Up to a third may die or suffer severe damage to the brain or multiple organ systems.

Damdin spent another three months in a vegetative state after he flew home to Mongolia. His family, meanwhile, was put through the wringer financially, emotionally and psychologically.

Because he did not have travel insurance, Damdin's hospital bills quickly became a six-figure nightmare.

By the second week of his stay in hospital, Otgo and Nagy were reduced to sleeping on newspapers on the floor next to Damdin's bed in hospital.

Their savings quickly ran out. Otgo had to sell jewellery, clothes and, later, even land to keep her husband alive.

The family also had a crash course in humanity, and saw its faces both ugly and beautiful.

Friends whom they trusted deserted them; relatives whom they thought they could rely on turned their backs on them.

Nagy - then a foreign relations manager in a Mongolian investment holding company - lost his job. His employers said they sympathised with his situation but could not allow him to stay away from work for such a long time.

"I was so depressed; I even thought of killing myself," he says.

Fortunately there were silver linings.

Through a medical social worker, my friend Josie - whose family runs a budget hotel - came to know of their plight.

Josie and family not only gave Otgo and Nagy a free room for several months, they also gave the Puntsagdorjs a lot of emotional support.

Otgo says there were also other angels in Singapore who rallied around them.

One Mongolian woman living in Singapore told Otgo never to give up until the last minute.

"There was another Mongolian family with two little girls. One of them drew a picture of my husband, out of hospital, and looking healthy. The little girl's drawing gave me a lot of strength," she says.

Kind Singaporeans offered comforting words, and sometimes bought them meals. A Singapore property developer - who has an office in Ulaanbaatar - later offered Nagy a job as a marketing executive.

Otgo says: "We found priceless friendships in the most unlikely places."

On June 18, 2014, Damdin - still unconscious - flew home to Ulaanbaatar; he was on a hospital bed and was accompanied on the flight by a nurse.

Nagy says: "The doctor told us my dad might be in a vegetative state for a long time or he might recover. The future was unknown. We had to leave because the longer we stayed, the higher the hospital bill would soar."

Upon arrival in Ulaanbaatar, Damdin was admitted to a Mongolian hospital and discharged 10 days later. Doctors told his wife there was nothing they could do.

Otgo, a former paediatrician, recalls: "They said he might stay like this forever so he would need lifelong support and care from family members. I couldn't give up, I had to stay strong."

An agnostic, she sought help and comfort from Catholic nuns and even a Mongolian shaman.

Every day, she would talk to Damdin as she massaged him.

"I told him he was too young to go to the sky; I told him the children still needed him," she says

One day in mid-September 2014, Damdin's eyes suddenly opened.

"He just started crying, big tears rolling down his cheeks," Otgo recalls.

But he could not recognise his loved ones.

Fortunately, his memory slowly came back as did his mobility, although his balance was wonky and he often fell in the first few weeks.

Over the next few months, Otgo forced her husband to read from newspapers and then grilled him on what he had just read.

"I'd send him out to the shops and make him run errands and I'd follow behind to see if he got lost or forgot to do what he was supposed to do," says Otgo, who updated those who had helped her each time Damdin had a breakthrough.

In February last year, she whatsapp'd Josie the following update in fractured English: "Now my husband feeling good. Don't worry and you are all come together to Mongolia. I always talk about you for my husband and he knows all your names."

That is what has brought us - Josie, me and three other people whose paths crossed with this family's in Singapore - to Mongolia 18 months later.

It is a unique trip in more ways than one. Mongolia is a harsh but stunningly beautiful land, one where the clouds tell stories and the vastness sings.

But more than just an expedition to see the new and the wondrous, the trip is a reminder that friendship, empathy and humanity can really add colour and meaning to our time on earth.

The worst is over for Damdin, Otgo, Nagy and Anu, but they still have worries. They have a mountain of debts which will take them years to settle but they are intent on paying back every cent.

Damdin - who hopes to go back to work soon - feels bad that he has put his family through so much.

"It is a lesson and the cost has been high. But I'm proud my family and I went through these challenges and survived. We are now stronger."

Strong he definitely is; he reaches the ovoo a good 10 minutes before I do.

I do not know what he will wish for. But when I get to the summit of Wishes Mountain and toss milk and rice into the desert air, I will ask for strength, and friends and family who will always be there for me.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Man who stared Death in the face'. Print Edition | Subscribe