Scaling beyond life’s limit

Askmelah’s Note: while I applaud Dr Lee’s conscientiousness and righteousness and her genuity in wanting to help Jacqueline Woo, I shudder to think some powerful politicians or tycoons will be able to influence decision makers much like what is happening in other third world countries. Every tool has its two-sided uses, like the gun if use by cops, it may save lives, else it may become a killing machine. Had Dr Lee not the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, I am not sure if the MGS principal will be quick to say “sorry, we have to go by the book. Otherwise it will be unfair other students who have better grades.” Dr Lee has not revealed more in this article the decision making process, but the right thing for any school or any public funded organisations such as hospitals when encountered such requests, should get the approval of the Board of Directors or independent third parties (e.g. School Parents Volunteer Committee) to consider such request on a transparent basis rather than let the poor principal or CEO to shoulder all the pressure from a real or perceived powerful person. A lesser integrity person will be easy to say yes to such request. Of course no system is perfect, but more transparency will reduce such possibility by a great deal and genuine request be granted, just like in the case of Jacqueline Woo.

Souce: The Sunday Times  12 Mar 2012

scaling beyond life's limit


Scaling beyond life’s limits – by Lee Wei Ling

Source: The Sunday Times  Mar 11, 2012

By Lee Wei Ling

Unable to walk, talk or write by hand, this determined A-level girl still scores three As

I first saw Jacqueline Woo Pei Ling – or Jac as her family and friends call her – when she was three years old. Her walking was strange. All the doctors were puzzled, including the late Professor Wong Hock Boon, the father of paediatric medicine in Singapore.

Over the years, it became obvious that Jac suffered from abnormal and very strong involuntary movements. These became progressively worse, until eventually she could no longer walk, write or talk.

Her difficulty in speaking is due to her inability to voluntarily control the muscles involved, especially those controlling the vocal cords. The muscles around her trunk have also been affected and, as a result, her body is twisted almost like a pretzel.

Jac’s parents have dedicated their lives to caring for her. When she was in primary school, her mother would go with her to school and stay throughout the school day so as to be able to wheel her around in her wheelchair.

Before she took her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), Jac told me that she hoped to do well enough to be admitted to Methodist Girls School (MGS). But as it turned out, her score was not quite good enough. If she had been from MGS Primary, she would have got into MGS Secondary, but the bar was set higher for those who came from other primary schools.

I happened to know the principal of MGS, my mother’s old school, and so called her to explain Jac’s physical handicap as well as her determination and intelligence. MGS would be good for Jac, and Jac would be good for MGS, I pleaded. After considering the case carefully, the principal decided MGS should indeed take a chance on Jac.

The principal never regretted her decision, for Jac flourished in the school. Socially, she found a community who took her into their hearts. Academically, she did very well, with her O-level results gaining her admission to Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC) with no difficulty.

I am very grateful to the students and staff at both MGS and ACJC for befriending Jac and taking care of her. Her school friends took turns pushing her around in her wheelchair and helping her in the toilet. This speaks well of their compassion and gives one confidence that Singapore’s young will be conscious of their responsibilities to society as a whole.

Jac has always studied hard. She invariably completes her assignments on time and keeps up with her assigned readings. She e-mails or texts her teachers if she has questions, for she can hardly speak to them. She would sacrifice her sleep when necessary to complete her homework or study for tests and exams.

This determination and diligence always stood her in good stead, most recently in the A-level exams. Jac scored three As – for history, literature and Chinese, three subjects notoriously difficult to ace.

These are excellent results by any measure – and remarkable if one took into account her disability, which among other things, makes typing a slow and tedious process.

Jac is unable to write by hand and so has to type her answers on a laptop. As she is unable to sit up, she has to do this lying on her stomach, on a couch, with her upper body propped up on her elbows so she can type. Her typing is further impeded by the fact that her left hand is appreciably weaker than her right.

Because she is so severely handicapped, Jac was granted extra time in the examinations – 75 per cent more time for all subjects except mathematics, for which she was granted 100 per cent extra time. So she was given five hours and 15 minutes to complete each of her humanities papers, compared with normal students who had three hours, and six hours for mathematics.

On one day, she had two papers – mathematics and history. That day, her examinations lasted a total of 11 hours and 15 minutes, with just an hour’s break between the two papers.

She refused to take toilet breaks during any of her papers, though her mother waited outside the exam hall just in case.

Jac’s A-level results are good enough to win her a place in any Singapore university, but I am not sure where she will go.

The National University of Singapore, especially its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is full of hills and staircases, and I don’t know if Jac will be able to navigate her way around the campus easily. Nanyang Technological University is a very long way from her home, and she would not be able to cope on her own if she had to stay in a hostel. Singapore Management University emphasises participation, and Jac cannot take part in discussions because she can hardly speak.

I am certain Jac will find a suitable university – and that each will try its best to accommodate her presence, as did MGS and ACJC. But these considerations underline how Jac, unlike normal students, cannot take anything for granted. Every step for her is a hurdle, every trip a perilous expedition.

Jac has been under my care for many years now, but I cannot cure her. All I can do is prescribe muscle relaxants to reduce the pain her powerful involuntary movements cause her. Brain surgery has a 50 per cent chance of improving her physical condition, but that means there is a 50 per cent chance the operation will not do her any good.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic about her future. She has already shown that she has a strong will to succeed despite her physical handicap. Her determination and resilience will help her overcome many obstacles. In addition, medical science is advancing rapidly, and a cure for her condition may be possible in the near future.

But whatever happens, Jac cannot and will not be disheartened. Life goes on, and she will be prepared to face whatever life deals her, just as all of us must.

Jac is the purest expression I know of a spirit that always triumphs over adversity, even the most dire. I am her doctor and she’s my patient, but I always feel humbled in her presence.