20 years ago..
I lost my legs in a 6-hour surgery on October 1st 2003. It was a foreboding task for my neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Veerapen and his medical team at Sunway Medical Centre. They opened up my spine to discover a huge mess of scar tissues, old tumours, new tumours, fine blood vessels and nerve endings – all fused up in a major confusion. There were spine tumours coiled like a serpent around my central nervous system. The mass totalled the size of a small farm egg larger than a golf ball. The new tumours came off like sacs of fish roe, while the old tumours were alike 10-year-old chewing gum stuck on the rough surface of a concrete wall.
The outcome of that surgery was unknown for years afterwards. It was a bloody mess.
The thing I learnt through my experience with neurosurgery is this – a tumour in the brain is far easier to remove than a tumour in the spine. We are not even supposed to expose our spinal cord, let alone go in to mess around with a knife. You can cut out a certain 20% of your brain mass and still function normally, while the spinal section offers no such margin. A spine surgery has ZERO margin for error.
I went in to this surgery knowing full well that I am gambling for a second round of miracles. The fact that I had 90% recovery the first surgery 11 years before (1992), was already a lot of miracles used up.
How I have changed in my personal views..
Everyone around me crumbled when we found the tumours in the scans. I was distracted and heartbroken by my personal affairs that it had made me a little fearless. I thought like a poker player. What could I do? You get dealt some cards, you play.
A conman once told me, “Life is like a poker game, it is not about having a good hand, but playing a bad hand well” and I had taken this to heart.
I am not a gambler – at least not on felt tables – my life already has very high stakes.
Some people called me the walking luck.
But I came to realise that it is the devil’s lie.
During a Christmas holiday in Las Vegas, we pulled a great jackpot. That night, we swam in piles of freshly minted greenbacks and ordered champagne & beluga back to our villa. My ex was always lucky at the casinos with me, he concluded early on that I was his lucky star. The adventures we shared for 9 years was like an enchanting dance with the devil.
Despite that chapter of my past, I don’t believe in casino winnings. I recognise them as a curse. The casino industry is a master at tempting people into destructive delusion, I was wary to subscribe to that type of magic. It is full of deceit.
I was a high roller in life, but I kept grounded as a calculated risk taker. I used to believe that whatever merits I accumulated in my lifetime should be saved for more dire situations, when luck is really needed – my spine surgery was a great example. But now, I don’t even believe in luck anymore.
I don’t think this way anymore.
Now I see God in my life, every step of the way. I rely on His grace and mercy. He has carried me out of the worst places, during a time I didn’t even know I needed help. He closed some doors that were painful to close, only to lead me to better destinations.
Faith cannot be easily attained, but hardships are opportunities that can grow your faith.
History of my spine tumours..
My first spine surgery was in 1992, I was seventeen.
Thoracic intradural meningioma
Dr. Selva and Mr. Chee had to cut a window of access through a row of my bones (vertabraes T8 to T11) to access my spinal cord. My spinal casing was pregnant with tumour. A healthy adult usually has a spinal cord of 12mm in diameter. Due to the constricted space within my spinal bone structure, the tumour had squeezed my spinal cord down to 2mm. This caused my paraplegia and total loss of form in both my lower limbs.
If my neurosurgeons had wobbly hands, the risk of snipping off the hundreds of tiny blood vessels feeding my spine, would be highly probable. That could disable me for good from the bra line downwards.
These were tedious microscopic affairs.
No one knew if the spinal cord would regain its original form after the tumours were removed.
My second spine surgery shared similar odds, but with a far more complicated war zone to deal with. That snake-like masses of tumours were impossible to detangle. To remove everything would mean he has to open up my chest, remove my rib cage to get to the inaccessible parts of my spine that were affected. The odds were grim.
Dr. Veerapen opened a larger window by sectioning off four more vertebraes making the opening to span from T5 to T12. T is for thoracic, the part of our spinal near the bra line. He took out with great difficulty only what he could access.
It did not dawn on me then that I will not be returning to a normal life after that, I was distracted and heartbroken that I could not celebrate my ex’s 30th birthday in London with him. That surgery broke us both.
I woke up at 4am the next morning in extreme pain, it was a screaming nightmare. It was as if my legs were bent the wrong way, distorted in some bad accident. I could only see the ceiling, crying and pleading for someone to “straighten my legs.. straighten my legs.. straighten my legs..”
My mother told me that my legs were symmetrically straight on the bed, but I could not believe her.
This horrid pain lasted to this day but I no longer pay attention to it.
People always asked me to describe what it was like. Imagine a severe bout of pins and needles after you have sat on the floor in a bad position and when you try standing up, your legs doesn’t feel belonged and moving it feels heavily disorienting. If you recognise that feeling, multiply that by 1000 times perhaps. The feeling of Itch would feel like 3000 times of that and pain is another 3000 more depending on how severely injured I am.
The pain sensation is so magnified that it is hard to differentiate itch, pain or extreme temperatures. Sometimes it takes me an entire day to realise that I have injured myself, since the greatness of my discomfort has become a norm for 20 years now. It has gotten even heavier over the pandemic, I can say that I finally feel disabled. It is unreal but I ain’t walking on clouds.
Despite all my setbacks, something worked out in my life.
Some people told me off when I praise God for being so good to me.
“If God is so good, you would not be disabled!”
I tend to disagree.
It takes so much mental energy to just focus on putting one foot ahead of another, once upon a time I could not even talk and walk at the same time because it required so much concentration.
However I see things differently – my clouds aren’t only silver-lined, it is colourful from my perspective. I found out what I can do in spite of hardships.
We all have hardships, DON’T WHINE! Never play the victim. It is fine to fall down sometimes, just pick yourself up and love yourself better.
Have forgiveness & gratitude in your heart, love people, give abundantly, and be equipped with discernment.
Why do I always shoot so high?
I aim for the stars to at least land on treetops.
The song named Treetops that I wrote in 2008 was about this aspiration. Meantime my Rooftop Cat aka RTC signature artwork is themed on having goals and aspirations.
Listen to my first original composition
See my street art
Watch me paint
Sample my upcoming film