Jennifer's Journey

On January 22, the Sunday edition of Sin Chew Jit Poh, Chinese newspaper featured a photo with the report on the Light-Up ceremony at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk to kick-off the Chinese New Year celebrations in Johor Baru’s heritage quarter.
The lady drummers performing at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage
Walk for the Chinese New Year Light-Up ceremony, Jan 20
The photo showed six women drummers beating Chinese drums in the 24 Festive Drums’ art of drumming and I recognized them as members of the JB Befrienders.  But I know the lady drummer, second from left, is not a member because she’s my friend, Jennifer Liew, who was “adopted” by this drumming group about seven weeks ago.

If you look closely at this shot you will spot Jennifer’s “third leg” next to her drum.  It’s her walking stick.  Now you must be wondering, “What is this lady who needs a walking stick doing, drumming in a public performance on at the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk?”

To answer this question, let me share with you her inspirational journey that brought Jennifer to where she is now.

Photo from newspaper report; Jennifer Liew [2nd from
Left] Can you spot her "third leg"?
In the 1990s she had the opportunity to watch the Foon Yew High School drum troop performing the 24 Festive Drums and this dramatic performance sparked off her dream to learn this art of drumming. 

Jennifer grew up on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, where her family once lived in the block closer to the OCBC Bank, and from the tender age of eight, Jennifer’s other dream was to travel the world.

When she turned 21, her dream to travel was realized when she joined Cathay Pacific Airlines as cabin crew and this career took her around the world.  She was then based in Hong Kong and was back in JB only for family visits. 

Jennifer [3rd from Left] with her Befriender drummers
When she decided to quit flying, she joined the world’s biggest event company and applied herself to organizing world-class events, learning, growing and investing in personal development programmes and life skills.

With her base in Kuala Lumpur, Jennifer continued to travel the world to attend events, take care of invited speakers and organized everything from A to Z to ensure that public training programmes and seminars went on without a hitch.

In April 2014, Jennifer discovered that her vision was impaired and diagnosed as suffering from Macula edema.  She underwent a series of eye laser treatments and even after seven injections into her eyeball, her vision remained poor.

Jennifer [Left] with former schoolmates,
Wei Leng [Center] and Lee Fung [Right] at HSA, Jan 2015
While she was driving on the way to a meeting in KL, Jennifer was involved in a motor accident.  Her car was a wreck but thankfully, she was not seriously injured.  Then she moved back to JB to rest and recuperate, and that was when we reconnected again.

Jennifer and I share some things in common.  Not only are our parents acquainted, two of our older sisters were classmates while we too were also classmates in the Johor Baru Convent.  

When Jennifer was admitted to Hospital Sultanah Aminah (HSA) in Jan 2015, it marked the start of her failing health.  With her unstable health, she was in and out of the hospital but throughout her treatments, she remained cheerful and positive.

Jennifer on her birthday
celebration in Aug 2015
It took some time but she recovered well and I remember the dinner celebration her husband hosted to celebrate her birthday in Aug 2015.

When Jennifer was again admitted to HSA on 2 May 2016, none of her friends were aware of it.  In her previous hospital admissions, she would send us a text message to let us know that she was resting there.  But this time, she was just not up to doing that.

My eldest sister, who are friends with her eldest sister, received a message from the UK, where she lives, telling her to inform us.  As soon as my sister told me, we rushed to HSA to see Jennifer.

By this time, she was already in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of HSA.  I can never forget the sight of her, lying pale and inert, intubated and on life support.  Her heart was swollen and had two leaky valves, she had suffered renal failure and her major organs had started to shut down.
Of course Jennifer had no memory of the time she was lying in the ICU but her brother told her when she was admitted with breathing difficulties, she was transferred to the Red Zone where a cardiologist treated her and put her on oxygen.

Wei Leng with Jennifer at HSA, 11 May 2016
At that time, there was no vacancy in the ICU and to keep her alive, a nurse helped her to breathe by using a manual pump until she was moved into the ICU.

It was May 10, when she was finally out of the ICU and moved to the normal ward.  But after being so ill, Jennifer was incoherent and had no idea of what happened to her. 

When they wheeled her around for scans and tests, she told me how she felt the sun in her eyes and smelled food (maybe because they passed the kitchen), but she didn’t know where she was.  Then her blurry eyes noticed red bricks on the walls and she wondered if she was in the UK on a warm summer’s day…

Jennifer was diagnosed with renal failure and needed to undergo regular hemodialysis.  To start this treatment, she had surgery with a Nephrologist to fit an AV fistula (AVF) or arteriovenous fistula on her neck.

Jennifer with Lee Fung at HSA, 12 May 2016
After a series of blood transfusions, scans and heart monitoring, she was discharged from HSA on May 14.  

Then she started her first dialysis treatment on May 15 at the Landmark Dialysis Center with a three times, 4-hourly treatments, per week schedule.

Meanwhile, she consulted Dr Angamuthu for a further surgery to fix a permanent access for dialysis and it took two operations over a period of a month to complete the AVF and brachiocephalic fistula or BCF, in the vein on her right arm.

She continued to use the neck AVF for dialysis for two more months before the new AVF and BCF surgeries healed properly and were ready for use.  After using the AVF and BC fistula for two weeks, the neck fistula was removed.

Undergoing hemodialysis via
the AV fistula on her neck
Meanwhile her application to the Rotary Club of Johor Baru’s Hemodialysis Center submitted in May, was finally approved and she started treatments here in Aug 2016. 

It was a series of tremendous challenges but Jennifer gradually learned to cope and adjust to a lifestyle change and worked hard at getting her strength back. 

She drew on her past experience from her flying days, being a host on the flights, managing the crews and passengers – and later, in leadership roles and developing herself with the events company – all these experiences helped her to deal with her life-changing experience.

Physically, she may look fine but her vision is that of a visually impaired person and yet she’s not qualified to be certified blind.  Sometimes, friends may wave and smile at her but she will not respond because she cannot see them. 

At meal times, she may need to ask, “What is this?” or “What is that?” and she is aware of how irritating it may be to others who don’t have poor eyesight.

Celebrating her birthday at the
Landmark Dialysis Centre, 2016
Jennifer recognizes that she is no longer independent or self-reliant because her low vision has limited a great deal of her normal activities like reading, cooking or sewing.  Now it’s impossible for her to read the labels on sauces or ingredients on food packs, not even the price labels if she went shopping… and doing many things that sighted people often take for granted.

Her walking is also limited but she knows that physical exercise is important.  She uses a walking stick to help her maneuver around on uneven ground, steps or curbs, gauge the ground level and try to avoid tripping.

As Jennifer established a regular routine of undergoing dialysis three times a week and making the effort to eat a healthier diet, she regained a measure of stable health.

In her own words she said, “I’m ever grateful for this new lease of life.  Our time on earth is temporary.  Anything can happen, one can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

“I survived the organ shutdown and as I recovered, I felt quite overwhelmed mentally, emotionally and physically to understand and come to terms with the situation – not just for me but for my husband and immediate family.”

One of the dramatic drum performances at the
International Drum Competition, Sept 2016 
“I deeply appreciate how my husband stepped in to be my rock to support me and take care of me.”

I remember she told me about her desire to learn to play the drums but I didn’t broach the subject until she was physically stronger.  

While she was resting at home, she may have read some of my stories on the 24 Festive Drums and then she was hooked!

She was simply fascinated and so proud that this art of drumming was started not in China, Japan or Korea but in our very own Johor Baru!

When she read about the International Drum Competition planned for Sept 17, she asked if I was going and as I replied “Yes!” I also invited her to come with me.

Our visit to "Japan" at Aeon Tebrau City, Dec 2016
I also invited Elizabeth Chan, another former classmate, to join us because I needed an extra pair of hands to help with Jennifer at the event held at EduCity stadium, Iskandar Puteri.  The drum show so inspired Jennifer that it revived her interest in taking drum lessons.

Meanwhile I was observing how she was gradually improving in health and when the JB Arts Festival rolled around, I invited Jennifer along to enjoy some of the evening shows.

I also went to the Drums CafĂ© to meet with drum master, Lee Sheah Liang, and told him about Jennifer’s desire to learn to play the drums.  I filled him in about her physical limitations and health conditions and was grateful that he was ready to accept her into a basic level class to start drums lessons there!

Our visit to "Italy" at Aeon Tebrau City, Dec 2016;
Can anyone recognise this "Mona Lisa"?
I hugged this info to myself and wanted Lee to tell Jennifer the good news when they met.  I then arranged for her to attend a drum demo and street show in one of the Arts Festival programmes where she should meet with Lee.  And when they did, she enrolled for classes immediately!

I can still remember that day in Nov 2016 when Jennifer went for her first drum lesson.  She was at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee for breakfast with her husband and sent me a text message, sharing her excitement as she eagerly anticipated going to her first class!

This happiness was however, short-lived because two of her class members dropped out after the first lesson and she was suddenly “orphaned!”

Enjoying Nyonya cuisine together
Lee was kind enough to offer a place to her in an ongoing class with the Befrienders group who kindly “adopted” her since Dec 2016.  While she was glad to continue her lessons, she felt as if she was thrown into the deep end because she was way behind them in lessons.  But she was determined to catch up.

So it was a dream come true for Jennifer to perform with the women drummers at the Chinese New Year event this Jan, held on the very street where she grew up – Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.  But that’s not all.

"Yes, it is a dream fulfilled and I look forward to becoming skilled at this art of drumming.  I've travelled round the world in my career and now its time to serve my hometown, even in my current capacity," said Jennifer.

She believes that all things are possible so she plans to make things work for her.  She told me she’s aware that life happens not “to me” but “for me.”

She may have lost some eyesight but she still has vision in life and knows what is possible.

She's also pampering herself
with manicures like this
Over the many years of her career with the airlines and in the seminar industry, she has learnt to listen to unspoken words, deal with situations and find solutions.  These valuable experiences are helping her cope with her life-changing experiences.

“Yes, it can be very frustrating sometimes but I have become more self-loving, learnt to appreciate myself and often try to make things happened for me,” said Jennifer.

That photo with Jennifer drumming with the group published in the newspapers, is a major milestone for her and most encouraging and inspiring.  I sent messages to congratulate her and Lee, her drumming master, and knew that I must share her story.

As I’m writing this, Jennifer sent a text message saying, “This resonates with who I am now:  I’m grateful to be alive.  Now I live with intention, I walk to the edge, I listen hard, practice wellness, play with abandon, laugh more and choose with no regret.  I appreciate my friends, continue to learn and I do what I love and live as if there is no tomorrow.”

Jennifer has certainly travelled a grueling journey and fought her way back to be on her feet again.  She’s truly an inspiration to all of us.

So as we wish each other Happy Chinese New Year, let us not only wish for abundant wealth, good fortune and prosperity but also wish for good health and strength.  Kongxi! Kongxi!

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