Lost weight but not sense of humour
FOR the past few weeks, exercise sessions for Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan have revolved – literally – around the dining table at his home in the Lentor area.
Since he returned home on May 14 from major open heart surgery, Mr Khaw has not stepped out of his house, apart from thrice-weekly trips to the National Heart Centre (NHC) for physiotherapy sessions.
Doctors fear infection, as his lungs have not regained their full capacity since they were “shut down” for 29 minutes for the bypass operation.
So to get some exercise, he walks “many kilometres a day” around that table at home. These and other adjustments have been par for the course for Mr Khaw for almost a month.
In an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, he disclosed how even the little things, such as watching television, have become a challenge. But he is slowly getting back into the groove, he said, and will take his first big step since surgery next Monday, when he returns to work at the Health Ministry.
As with everyone else who undergoes a major procedure, however, Mr Khaw said he is worried about what will happen next. But it is not as if he is fretting about how his health will hold up. His only worry, he said, is the impact of his ill health on a message he has pounded out with regularity in his six years as Health Minister: Staying healthy is a personal responsibility, and Singaporeans ought to observe good lifestyle habits.
Said Mr Khaw, who has led by example by exercising regularly and by being careful with his diet: “People might ask, what’s the point of a healthy lifestyle when a fellow as disciplined as I am still needed a bypass,” he said, with a frown creased over his brow.
The answer he will give to them is that you cannot fight your genes.
“If you have good genes, a healthy lifestyle will enhance it. If you have less than perfect genes, then a healthy lifestyle will help to mitigate the ill effects.”
He also plans to preach the message that regular screening is important, he added, and said he was pleased to note that since news of his operation was reported, many people who had been putting off being screened have decided to act.
Recalling his own brush with the surgeon’s knife, Mr Khaw said his problem was discovered by chance.
He said he had gone for regular health screenings, which all came up clear, and was feeling perfectly fit and healthy earlier this year.
Then his wife’s doctor, who knew of his high cholesterol level, told her Mr Khaw should do a CT scan to check his calcium score.
She broached the subject with him and he agreed, convinced that he was fine.
He figured that the worst that could happen was that his calcium score – which reflects the calcium deposits in the arteries – would be slightly raised. But as it turned out, it was through the roof.
His score was over 500.
A score above 80 indicates a person at higher risk of a heart attack, and anything over 400 is highly abnormal. Even then, however, he dismissed the test results.
“I never expected it to be so high. I really thought it was a false alarm because I was feeling fit,” he said.
But to Associate Professor Koh Tian Hai, NHC’s medical director, the test results were evidence that something was really wrong. He immediately quadrupled the dosage of the minister’s cholesterol medication from 10mg to 40mg – a dosage Mr Khaw is still on, and expects to maintain for the rest of his life.
Prof Koh urged Mr Khaw to do an angiogram – where a contrasting agent is injected into the blood and real-time scans are done to see if there is any blockage.
But the minister said he was not convinced yet. He did what he called a few “unnecessary” tests, such as electrocardiograms while exercising, and they came up fine. But Prof Koh did not give up so easily. His nurse kept calling Mr Khaw’s secretary to fix an appointment for the angiogram. Finally, the minister caved in, and the test was done in late April.
It was not a moment too soon.
The angiogram confirmed his need for a bypass fast. Not only was the blockage significant, it was in the left main artery – a spot doctors call the “widow-maker”.
He underwent surgery the following week, on May 4.
Looking back, Mr Khaw admits his folly: “I disbelieved the negative. Some tests were OK, so I disregarded the other test.”
Mr Khaw said details of that day are still hazy. He cannot remember going into the operating theatre or what happened when he regained consciousness.
But three images of the intensive care unit are etched into his mind – Associate Professor Ong Biauw Chi, a senior anaesthetist, fiddling with his painkillers by his bedside; senior staff nurse Maliga, whose face was just inches from his – “I can’t recall what she said, but the body language was very reassuring”, he said – and someone crying very loudly.
His wife, Jean, told him later that the person sobbing was their youngest daughter, Chun Ting. Miss Khaw, who has just graduated with an engineering degree from the National University of Singapore, said: “I didn’t know what to expect. I saw the tubes... it made me worried. He looked so pitiful.”
At his physiotherapy session yesterday, Mr Khaw, who was accompanied by his wife and Chun Ting, arrived looking a little wan and a tad worse for the wear.
He weighed 60kg when he entered the hospital, but yesterday, he tipped the scales at 57.5kg.
One thing he had not lost, though, was his sense of humour. The trio arrived 25 minutes late for their 10.15am appointment – surprising for a minister who makes it a point to be early for everything. He explained with a grin that there had been an accident on the Central Expressway, causing a blockage – much like the calcium in his artery.
With a smile, he moved on to his 1 1/2-hour physiotherapy session – warm-up stretches followed by 10 minutes on a stationary bike and 40 minutes of brisk walking on a treadmill, among other things. That was followed, one presumes, with several more hours of walking around a table at home.
After all, there is not much else that Mr Khaw can do at home.
Meditation is out, he said, as doctors worry that sitting still for too long could lead to thrombosis, or blood clots, in his legs. He finds watching television tiring – though he did watch the live telecast of China-born paddler Feng Tianwei win Singapore’s first World Team Table Tennis Championship in Moscow on May 30.
He said watching the event was a test to see how well he could take stress. His verdict?
“My pulse rate was stable, I was calm, so I’m now ready for the World Cup,” said the minister, who is rooting for Spain.
His constant companion these days is his iPhone, on which he listens to music. Politics is far from his mind now. It will be some weeks yet before he can get back to looking after the needs of his constituents in Sembawang GRC.
He cannot attend Meet the People sessions. Those meetings often attract between 90 and 100 people, and since the risk of infection is not gone, meeting large numbers of people is not good for him. For now, that means that Dr Maliki Osman and Dr Lim Wee Kiak, his fellow Sembawang GRC MPs, will have to stand
What of a general election, then? Will he be able to campaign? Yes, he says, with this caveat: “Unless the Prime Minister calls it for next month.”