Wednesday, October 24, 2012

'Acid attack' baby an active boy now

When Samuel was just three months old, a maid poured acid down his throat. His injuries were so bad, nobody expected him to live. But today, the 13-year-old goes to school, swims and hangs out with his friends just like other kids. 

The only difference? Samuel has never tasted food - something his doctors hope he will be able to do someday. 

SINGAPORE - Like most boys his age, Samuel Lim Hong Xiang, 13, loves music, enjoys sports like badminton and spends hours on the computer, surfing the Internet and playing games.

But unlike other teenagers, Samuel has never tasted food. For almost his entire life, he has been breathing and feeding through tubes inserted into his body.

He was three months old when a maid poured sulphuric acid down his throat.

On June 29, 1999, the family had left baby Samuel at the flat of his grandmother before going to work. The grandmother had gone out, but the couple’s Indonesian maid Latifah was in the flat with him.

While she was in the kitchen and Samuel lay asleep in the living room, Sumiyem, 17, another Indonesian maid working with the family and jealous of Ms Latifah, poured sulphuric acid into Samuel's mouth. She wanted to get Ms Latifah, then 27, into trouble.

Sumiyem was jailed for eight years in 2000.

Tears well up in Ms Tan's eyes as she recalls that day 13 years ago, and what happened afterwards. Samuel was taken to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at the National University Hospital. He spent six months there.

The horrific attack left the infant with terrible scars, and also severely damaged his tongue, throat and vocal chords. His upper airway was completely blocked.

Associate Professor Daniel Goh, head of the paediatric department, saw Samuel right after the incident. He recalled: "Because the airway and the gut were badly burnt by the acid, his life was definitely in danger. His prognosis then was very poor."

'Nobody expected him to live' 

Samuel needed two major operations to enable him to breathe and be fed, his father said. Ms Tan learnt cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills and kept vigil by her baby's side round the clock after he returned home.

She remembers waking up countless times during the night to feed and check on him.

"There were so many times when he choked on his phlegm or his airway got blocked, and we had to rush him to hospital in the middle of the night," she said.

"Once his whole face turned blue and I could not resuscitate him even after I performed CPR on him.

Somehow, out of instinct, I used a pair of scissors and snipped off his tracheostomy tube. Then I put in a new one for him before rushing him to hospital."

A doctor told her that Samuel probably could not breathe as his tracheostomy tube could have been blocked, and she had done the right thing by cutting the tube.

"Nobody expected him to live," recalled his father, Mr Lim Boon Keong, 41. "The surgeons said they would try their best. The rest would depend on him."

Amazingly, baby Samuel pulled through.

"It's a miracle that he survived. Doctors later told me that he is a very special child. The pain that my wife and I went through was indescribable," said Mr Lim.

But ask Samuel today and he describes his life as if everything is pretty normal.

What is different about him is that he depends on the tracheostomy tube to breathe. It is inserted in the front of his neck and into his windpipe.

He also relies on a gastrostomy tube inserted into his stomach for feeding.

Good listener 

He told The Sunday Times he got through the Primary School Leaving Examination last year with a score of 219 and is in Secondary 1 at Yuan Ching Secondary School, in Taman Jurong.

"When I am in school, I go to the pantry for my meals," said Samuel, covering the opening of his tracheostomy tube with his chin to make his speech clearer. "I am afraid people can't understand me.

So I don't like to speak."

His mother, Madam Tan Poh Ling, 41, piped in: "That makes him a good listener and earns him many friendships too."

When he was seven, Samuel started piano lessons. In Primary 4, he learned to play the guzheng, the Chinese zither.

Mr Lim said: "We wanted him to be able to use music to express his feelings when he got older."

Samuel's love for music grew and his talent has been recognised by Club Rainbow, which gave him a talent development fund grant for the fourth time this year.

"I have passed my Grade Three practical piano exams and Grade Five for theory," said Samuel softly.

"I don't like to speak, I like to play the piano. Now I play the piano daily and the guzheng twice a week."

His passion for music and opportunities to perform on stage helped to develop his self-esteem and he has grown to be a cheerful boy, said his parents.

The couple, former engineers, work in Mr Lim's family hardware business, which gives them the flexibility they need to care for Samuel and their younger children, son You Jun, 10, and daughter Yong Zhen, seven.

"Samuel is always surprising me with what he does," said Mr Lim. "Just the other day, he told me that he signed up for the hip hop dance class as part of his physical education programme. That's him, never afraid to try new things."

Samuel walks and runs like a typical teenager. On weekends, the family plays badminton together.

An attempt at a normal childhood
When Samuel was younger, he would go with the family on outings to McDonald's, even though he could not eat. He has never complained or asked to eat, said his mother.

Samuel said: "I just find food disgusting."

His birthdays used to be at a Swensen's restaurant, complete with an ice cream cake. But as he grew older, he told his parents he preferred not to have such celebrations.

Madam Tan recalled how Samuel would attract a lot of attention in public, and she would find herself fighting back tears when strangers asked about his condition.

But she and her husband wanted their special son to have as normal a childhood as possible and did not believe that he should be kept at home, away from stares.

"We wanted it to be easy for him to grow up, so we did not see the point in hiding him at home," she said.

"We took him to swim at public pools and we taught him to take care of himself and not let water get into his tracheostomy tube. We would find a quiet corner in public to feed him." Mr Lim said: "Now that he is older, he has no problems feeding himself in public when he goes out with his friends."

Samuel’s recovery, repeated hospital trips and his growing-up years have been a long journey for the couple.

And they are always prepared for the unexpected.

Last year, Samuel had to sit his Chinese and science papers for the Primary School Leaving Examination in hospital, as he was suffering from an intestinal obstruction as a result of his tube feeding.

Strong will to live 
Ms Tan said: “We rushed him to hospital on a Sunday night after he complained of a severe pain in his stomach.

“The next morning, I informed the Ministry of Education of his condition and the ministry managed to arrange for him to take his exams at the hospital.”

Mr Lim said: “After the accident, doctors told me that he is a very special boy. Every time I’ve needed to rush him to the hospital, I would be praying that he survives the ordeal and for his pain to be reduced. Samuel has shown that he has a very strong will to live.”

Samuel's school principal, Mrs Saraspathy Menon, told The Sunday Times that her staff help to make sure Samuel takes his meals punctually, at three-hour intervals, in the privacy of the staff pantry.

"In class, he is just like everyone else and he has been participating in most activities," she said.

"Samuel is a pleasant and friendly boy who interacts with classmates and teachers actively through non-verbal communication such as gesturing, writing and Facebook posts."

She added: "Samuel is a remarkable child. He has a smile for everyone and he has never complained about the challenges that he is grappling with.

"He exemplifies resilience and courage and all of us in Yuan Ching Secondary School have much to learn from him."

What lies ahead for Samuel? 

Associate Professor Daniel Goh, head of the paediatric department at the National University Hospital, has been seeing Samuel since the day of the acid attack and monitoring his progress.

He said that later this year a team of paediatric surgeons will attempt to reconstruct Samuel's gullet, and another team will re-evaluate his upper airway for possible reconstructive surgery later.

"It is hoped that he may ultimately be able to breathe and eat without the tubes. The reconstruction will likely be complicated and may require many staged operations," he said.

Describing Samuel's condition as unique, he said: "The circumstances under which the injury occurred as well as the extent and severity of the damage are certainly not something we have seen before.

"What's also special is Samuel himself, and his parents. Samuel has been a very brave young man who has overcome the odds and not only survived the initial ordeal but also lived to lead a good and fruitful life.

"His parents are also fantastic in supporting him through the years and have loved and cared for him very well. Despite his injuries, Samuel has grown up to be a well-adjusted, polite and delightful young man."

Samuel knows what happened to him when he was a baby. Asked what he feels about the maid who assaulted him, he said: “I don’t hate her.”

The rainbow connection 
Club Rainbow, a charity that helps children and young people with chronic illnesses, was one of the first to offer help to Samuel Lim and his parents after the acid attack. It has remained a source of support for them.

Its president, Mr Gregory Vijayendran, said: "One of the greatest joys I have experienced in service in Club Rainbow is watching Samuel grow up.

"At first, five to six years back, he was a shy, slightly withdrawn child with a budding musical talent and a quietly expressive demeanour and manner.

"He has blossomed and matured into a confident, socially engaged young man with wonderful piano playing skills that are a gateway to his soul filled with joy, hope and great sensitivity." Three months ago, Samuel played the piano for more than 300 guests at Club Rainbow's 20th anniversary celebration.

He was among 19 young people who received the charity's talent development fund grant, of between $400 and $800, that night.

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