Theresa Chan, Singapore's Helen Keller, dies after battle with lung cancer

Ms Theresa Chan Poh Lin in Eric Khoo's movie Be With Me. PHOTO: ZHAO WEI FILMS

SINGAPORE - She was known as the Helen Keller of the East, and her amazing life and indomitable spirit inspired film-maker Eric Khoo's movie Be With Me, which she starred in.

Ms Theresa Chan Poh Lin, who lost her sight and hearing after a bout of meningitis in her teens, died at Assisi Hospice on Monday (June 6) morning after battling advanced lung cancer. She was 72.

Ms Chan lived alone before she was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to the Singapore General Hospital in April. But in her last days, friends kept vigil at her bedside round the clock.

"She spent over 50 years of her life in total darkness and silence," said potter Delphine Sng, 56, who has known Ms Chan for 36 years.

"But despite all these challenges, she led a purposeful life, and was an inspiration to all of us who have known her."

The only daughter of a hawker and a waitress, Ms Chan grew up in Chinatown's Sago Lane. She became deaf at 12, and lost her sight at 14. But her life took a dramatic turn when she was found by a social worker.

After learning Braille at the Singapore School for the Blind, which was then led by war heroine Elizabeth Choy, Ms Chan, then 17, was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States in 1960 - the same school Helen Keller attended. Ms Chan learnt to pronounce English words by feeling and touching a speaker's lips and throat, topped her school in mathematics and became president of the sports club.

She spent 13 years in the US and travelled widely. She met the late Mother Teresa while attending Sunday Mass in a New Delhi church, fulfilling her aspirations to "learn like Helen Keller, to speak English like the Queen of England, to meet everyone in the world".

After returning to Singapore in 1973, Ms Chan taught at the Singapore School for the Blind till 1990.

She took care of daily tasks herself, with friends helping her by buying groceries, taking her to swim, and eat her favourite Cantonese dishes. She kept herself updated on current affairs, subscribing to Braille magazines.

In an interview with The Straits Times in April, the devout Catholic said she was unafraid of cancer. "If I have to go home, I will be happy to see Jesus. I hope people will remember me and remember that whatever their disabilities, they should have hope and not be unhappy and discouraged."

While treatment options were presented to her, she wanted only palliative care, said Ms Sng.

By the end of last month, she had begun dispensing instructions for her funeral, laboriously using hand signals to get her will written down, often stopping and starting as pain and tiredness got to her.

She would have celebrated her 73rd birthday on July 9 if she had not been taken by cancer.

According to her wishes, a Catholic mass was held on Monday afternoon before she was cremated in the evening.

Ms Chan went through one of her darkest periods when her mother, whom she said taught her all that she knew, died of stroke about 15 years ago.

In death, her urn will be placed next to her mother's at the columbarium of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul at Queen Street.

Said Mr Khoo: "I have very happy memories working with Theresa on Be With Me. She is truly one of a kind - brave, smart, charitable, funny and inspirational."

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