After cardiac arrest, Jurong Pioneer JC basketballer bounces back for A levels

Jurong Pioneer JC student Xu Zhetai (left) suffered a cardiac arrest during basketball training in 2021. His best friend Joshua Lim was one of the first responders. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Like many of his peers, Xu Zhetai heaved a sigh of relief when he received his A-level results on Tuesday (Feb 22).

But for this former Jurong Pioneer Junior College student, the journey to the examinations was no ordinary one.

Just a year ago, Xu had to relearn how to walk and speak after suffering a cardiac arrest during basketball training in school.

On the day of the incident, the then 17-year-old and his teammates had arrived at practice eager to try out the newly refurbished basketball court. As his teammates did their drills, Xu was on the court doing his own exercises.

He does not remember what happened next, but the session took a horrid twist as he collapsed. The teacher-in-charge and coach rushed to his aid and found that he was unresponsive and not breathing.

The pair, along with teammate Joshua Lim, took turns to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation and administer automated external defibrillator shocks until an ambulance arrived to take Xu to hospital.

Recounting the incident, Lim, 18, said: "I immediately flipped the switch (in my mind) into how to make sure that he comes back to life. I didn't really feel scared or nervous at that point in time, but it sank in after that."

Doctors were able to revive Xu, but he was placed in an induced coma for a week as his condition was unstable.

When Xu awoke from his coma, he was told that he had a congenital heart defect.

"I thought about how I was going to go out of shape in terms of my studies and that I wouldn't get to exercise," he said. "It was a lot to take in and I was devastated by what happened, but I was also relieved that I was still alive."

But his ordeal was far from over as he underwent two operations: open heart surgery and a second to fit an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.

He spent a few weeks in hospital, before another three months of home recovery. It was tough for him as he required help for simple actions such as sitting up in bed and showering, owing to a chest scar from the operations.

He said: "I wanted to get it over with because it was a burden to other people. Moving around was inconvenient - it was devastating and depressing to constantly have to rely on others."

Friends like Lim rallied around him by visiting and keeping him updated on what was happening in school. When Xu returned in mid-May, they made him feel welcome and helped him get through the challenges he faced.

As his memory was affected, he had to read a text two or three times before he could retain the information, but his friends and teachers took the time to help him.

The school also offered to give him more time to complete his papers during the examinations as he could not write as quickly as before, but he declined because he believed he would improve with time. His teachers also offered to give him extra lessons to help him catch up with school work.

Xu said: "My family was supportive of me going back to school, but also reminded me that my health was important.

"The school helped me a lot when I went back, which was reassuring. They let me know that I wasn't alone."

His civics teacher, Madam Shalwa Md Taib, noted that Xu was determined to make up for lost time, saying: "He was a diligent and hard-working student in J1. You couldn't tell that he was away for months because he was quite focused and determined.

"It was quite a miraculous recovery because he had to relearn basic things like writing and speaking."

Friends like Joshua Lim (right) rallied around Xu Zhetai by visiting and keeping him updated on what was happening in school. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

After a turbulent 2021, Xu - who declined to disclose his A-level grades - hopes to pursue a degree in translation and interpretation or language studies at Nanyang Technological University or the National University of Singapore.

For now, he is looking forward to getting back on the basketball court to compete. Having returned to play the sport casually, he plans this month to participate in his first tournament since his recovery.

Reflecting on the past year, Xu said: "Life can be fragile - it's better to treasure everything and appreciate what we have, even if everything may not go your way."

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