Tan's battle against H1N1

Tan Ban Gun is a businessman in Johor Baru
Angela, my friend from Asia Medevac Services (AMS) called me one evening recently to ask if I can join them to meet a patient who was going back to the hospital for his first check-up.  I was rather puzzled until she clarified that his was a rare case where the patient had a dangerous lung condition and was literally brought back from the brink of death with ECMO support.  I listened carefully to ascertain if this was a newsworthy item while I mentally checked my calendar to see if I could avail myself for this.  As I began to understand what Angela was saying, I felt that I should cancel anything lined up to go with her to meet with the patient and his doctors.

Our arrangement was to travel to the hospital together and Angela said that she will collect me from my house rather than let me park at her office.  On that morning of our appointment, she messaged me saying that their driver will pick me and that I should expect an ambulance!  I’m aware that they operate an ambulance service so I replied in jest telling her that I refuse to lie down…

I guess our neighbours who observed an ambulance arriving at our house were curious but must have been surprised that I took time to snap photos and then climb in at the front passenger seat!

My ride to the office was in an AMS ambulance!
The driver and I had a nice chit-chat about his work while he sent me to the AMS office located at the lobby level of Tropical Inn JB where I met Angela and she drove us to the hospital.  When we arrived, it was already close to lunch time and she told me we were going to eat soon.  The patient, Tan Ban Gun, 59, with his wife and son were in the lobby, waiting for Dr Su Jang Wen, the thoracic & cardiovascular surgery specialist, who would be joining us for lunch.  

On our drive, Angela filled me in on the details about Tan’s case and how he had a miraculous recovery after a 21-day stay in hospital.  By the time we meet, Tan would have completed his first check-up with Dr Su and after lunch, Tan would go to for his check-up with Dr Kenneth Chan, the respiratory physician & ICU specialist.  Our time together would give me the opportunity to meet both the doctors who looked after Tan and interview Tan and his family members.

Doctor [Left] having lunch with his patient, Tan [Right]
When I was introduced to Tan, he was understandably bursting to tell me about how his dramatic medical experience had given him a new perspective of life.  As his wife looked on with loving indulgence, Tan spoke to me enthusiastically in a mixture of English and Mandarin, while his son chipped in to clarify what his father was trying to tell me.  We continued our chat over lunch and even though it was a sumptuous meal, I must admit that I could hardly eat because I was getting a whole lot of info from the doctor as well as Tan and his family.  

By the end of the afternoon, I managed to grasp a clearer picture of the medical emergency and the emotional roller-coaster ride that this family went through to save Tan’s life.  This is Tan’s story:

About one and a half months after I returned from a trip to China, I was the only member of our group to start having cough and flu symptoms.  I have never been hospitalised in my life but this was the start of a dramatic medical adventure that led to my 21-day stay in hospital.  At first, I consulted a clinic doctor as an outpatient but after taking his prescription, my cough and flu symptoms still persisted so I went to consult another doctor but even after I took the second prescription, the symptoms still did not cease.

I consulted the third doctor, explained that I did not improve even after two courses of medicine and he suggested taking a chest X-Ray.  From the X-ray, he suspected a viral infection and advised me to get admitted for treatment in a hospital.  On admission, I was placed in the normal ward but my condition rapidly deteriorated and the next morning, I was put in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  I had difficulty in breathing and was told that I had contracted pneumonia, a condition which caused my lungs to be almost completely filled with fluid. 

Dr Su Jang Wen [Left] with Tan on the day
the patient was discharged  from hospital
Efforts to help me breathe through a ventilator only made matters worse and I was deteriorating so rapidly that I later learnt that my wife, who was with me, was so shocked that she fainted.  She and my eldest son were afraid that they were going to lose me and sought the help of the doctors to give me a chance to survive.  They realised that part of the problem was that the ventilator was exerting a positive pressure on the lungs to force air in and this was increasing the inflammatory response.

When my family reached a decision to transfer me to another hospital, the doctors contacted the Parkway Patient Assistance Centre in JB who initiated an emergency response from Asia Medevac Services (AMS), an organisation who provides bed-to-bed transfer services in this region, and made the necessary arrangements for me to be moved.  Later my son told me that the doctors from the discharging and receiving hospitals spoke to him about my delicate condition but my son was determined to do everything possible to save me.  At that point, I had only 13 per cent of lung capacity left but my family was prepared to take the risk and shift me to better medical facilities if it means that I would have a chance to live.

Meanwhile Dr Su Jang Wen, a thoracic and cardiovascular specialist and his team at the receiving hospital were preparing the ICU room with all the necessary support equipment for me while AMS rushed me over in about 30 minutes through an emergency transfer.  On arrival, I was immediately hooked up to the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) support, a process that drew blood while adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide before pumping it back, to allow my lungs to rest and recover.  While I was on ECMO support for five days, I was also constantly monitored by Dr Kenneth Chan, a respiratory physician & ICU specialist, who made sure I was safe and comfortable.

Tan with Dr Kenneth Chan in the hospital garden
on his first check-up date back at the hospital
When my breathing stablised, I gradually recovered and stayed in the hospital for another 16 days.  No one would have imagined that I almost lost my life because of flu symptoms but later, tests showed that my condition was caused by the H1N1 flu virus.  At a recent check-up appointment at the hospital, the doctors found that I had lost 10kg and now weigh only 80kg.  I used to have borderline high blood pressure but now I am normal and I feel like a new man!

My doctors explained that ECMO treatment was originally used by surgeons for heart and lung surgeries but now the equipment has been simplified and the technology was transferred for use in the ICU.  I’m ever grateful to the partnership of Dr Su and Dr Chan, working as a team for ECMO treatments for almost 5 years, and how they did everything possible to ensure my survival.  I’m also thankful to the efficiency of AMS, the first of its kind bed-to-bed transfer services based in JB for patients in this region, for without their support, I may not be here today.

I am from Pontian and I met my wife, who is from Segamat, while we were in Singapore and we settled down in JB.  We have three sons, the eldest aged 32, and we have been operating a small business as a gas cylinder distributor in Mt Austin for more than 20 years.  As an entrepreneur, I have been pushing myself relentlessly all these years but since recovering from this life-threatening experience, I’m looking at life differently now.

I must have been at Death’s door but now that I’ve been given a new lease in life, the next chapter of my life will certainly be more meaningful.  I have learnt that life is indeed priceless and now that I have been reborn, I’m not driving myself so hard but am going at a much slower pace, taking walks in the park, getting in touch with Nature and enjoying my family life.  More importantly, now I can look forward to seeing my sons get married.  

For more info on Asia Medevac Services, visit website: www.asiamedevac.com
For more info on thoracic & cardiovascular surgery specialist, visit website: www.tcss.sg
More info on Respiratory Medical Associates can be found on website: www.respmed-associates.sg

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor, on 16 July 2014

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