When love pulls you back from the brink

As Valentine’s Day comes around, Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore brings you a series about love stories from Singapore.

Soo Leng (left) and Felicia (right) with their daughter, Portia in January 2019. (Photo: Felicia & Soo Leng)

By Isabelle Liew

One day in March 2010, Felicia Loo’s arm suddenly stopped working. She was trying to brush her teeth, but her arm refused to comply. Thinking that his wife, then just 34, was having a stroke, Tan Soo Leng rushed her to an emergency room.

It would be the first of many days, weeks and months that the couple would spend in hospitals in the eight years that followed.

That day, Felicia was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG), a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. And the bad news didn’t stop there. The doctors also discovered a tumour in her thymus gland, which sits in the neck, above the heart. The cancer was already at Stage 3, and the tumour needed to be removed.

Soo Leng, a software engineer, found himself shuttling between work, his very ill wife, and their young daughter, Portia, who was just four at the time.

“I was devastated – I had spent half my life with Felicia, and she was paramount in my life. But I kept chanting (to myself) that she would survive,” remembers Soo Leng, now 46.
It was a far cry from their carefree courtship days. The pair met in 1995 while studying at the National University of Singapore and represented the Singapore Soka Association in the National Day Parade. In 2004, they got married, and three years later, had Portia. Until then, life had been happy – and without major incident.

Felicia’s diagnosis changed that.

Soon after, her diagnosis, she underwent surgery to remove the tumour.

“My energy improved a bit, but relapses were inevitable,” she remembers.
Over the seven years that followed, Felicia underwent another 10 surgeries relating to her cancer.
The cloud over the pair seemed to lift in 2016, when they found out that Felicia was pregnant again. But at 35 weeks, tragedy struck. Felicia contracted pneumonia.

“I went to the hospital but our baby had lost her heartbeat, and was stillborn,” she recalls. She fell into depression and the stress sent her into myasthenic crisis – a worsening of muscle weakness that can lead to respiratory failure.

Felicia undergone 10 surgeries related to her cancer. Photo: (Felicia & Soo Leng)

She was in hospital for another nine months, five of which were spent in the Intensive Care Unit. She slipped in and out of consciousness, relying on a ventilator to breathe.

During this period, Soo Leng stayed at the hospital, sometimes until 4am, before going home to get their 10-year-old to school, and heading for work himself. Family and friends stepped in to helped, but Soo Leng was her constant.

“Whenever I opened my eyes, he would always be there. He read me Buddhist scriptures – about life, about having hope that I would recover even when the doctors didn’t think I stood a chance,” she recalls.

While Soo Leng wasn’t given to grand gestures, he would do little things – wash her face, or help her with a shower. He would also bring their daughter in to spend the night, and never let her birthday pass without her favourite flowers.Throughout, they drew strength from each other and their shared Buddhist faith, and he constantly read to her from the scriptures.

After her discharge in December 2017, she remained on a feeding tube for nine months. Their room also housed a suction machine, and a ventilator.

Today, she only needs her ventilator when she sleeps, and Soo Leng still wakes up at 4am to grind her medication for her.

“I was at my darkest point, but my husband was so kind and so big hearted. I feel very lucky,” says Felicia, who is writing a book about her life, and how even the most dire circumstances can be conquered by love.

Valentine’s Day for them will be a simple one. Perhaps they will go out for ice cream, she says. But just having each other is enough.

“In those times of distress, it was the strength of his unconditional love that was pivotal to my recovery. Only a beautiful human being with a beautiful heart can shoulder what I made him go through.”