Dealt one blow after another, he persevered through trying times. Aaron Tay was diagnosed with lupus at nine, kidney failure at 24 and chronic heart failure at 28. Things took a turn for the better after his younger brother donated a kidney to him. Today, he runs a financial advisory practice and is the proud father of three girls.
1) Share with us your educational days while going for medical treatment at the same time. What thoughts went through your mind and how did you feel throughout the process?
It was a long-drawn process. I was subjected to multiple tests and needle pokes, had to do a blood test every month at a hospital and I remember the prickling feeling of the needles vividly. I had to undergo a biopsy and it was quite severe and painful.
I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) at the young age of nine, and both my mother and I broke down upon hearing this piece of news. My immune system had gone rogue and was harming my kidneys instead of protecting them from diseases. I laid in bed the whole day most of the time. I soon got used to the daily routine of taking medicine every single day, once in the morning and once at night.
There were not many side effects, apart from swelling on my limbs and having to make numerous trips to the clinics and hospitals. Each day, I had to dip lab sticks into my urine to test the leakage of protein from my urine. I soon developed a “moon face” and pot belly because of this condition.
On top of going through all these, I had to give up eating delicacies like ice cream, fizzy drinks and other treats that children enjoy, and instead take a daily cocktail of steroids and other medication. If all this wasn’t enough, I was also exempted from physical exercise (PE) since nine. I would always look on with envy when my classmates are having their PE lessons.
When I became more self-aware in secondary one, I started to feel inferior and had low self-esteem because of the prominence of my differing appearance. There was a teacher who’d picked me to be a prefect, but I declined the offer due to my inferiority complex.
Thus, I prided myself in my academic abilities and wanted to prove myself with my good grades, and compete academically instead of physically. As for my CCA in secondary school, I joined the Chinese club where I learnt calligraphy and had a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture and the Chinese language.
Eventually, I managed to make it to NUS Pharmacy. But because of the seriousness and severity of my health condition, I was advised to quit school and take a break. When I felt better, on the advice of my doctors, I decided to enrol into Nanyang Business School, which was less intensive than Pharmacy. I graduated in 2005 with an Honours degree in Banking and Finance.
Among the many activities I did in university, the one that stood out was the small business I started with my friend in our second year. Called Second Home, we rented out electrical appliances to undergraduates living in hostels. Although the profit was not much, the company managed to break even. We sold our inventory in the third year and went ahead with our lives. This was how I cultivated my entrepreneurial spirit.
2) What were your hopes and dreams when you were growing up? Did you have a role model you looked up to?
I met Professor A. Vathsala when I was transferred from a children’s hospital to an adult clinic. She took great care of me for over twenty years and she is the reason why I performed well in my studies. She has been my driving force to do well in my academic studies and my professional work. I looked up to her very much as she was very competent and intelligent.
As the Head of renal physical, she was very competent, intelligent, and caring. She was the one who inspired me to be a medical doctor. Not only has she helped me in my physical health, but also in my mindset to fight on amid setbacks.
Professor Vathsala is now co-director of renal transplantation at National University Centre for Organ Transplantation, National University Hospital.
3) What is the greatest takeaway from your educational pursuits?
I think the education system in Singapore makes good academics and gives students the ability to learn information fast, but lacks a certain real-world experience. More could be done to expose students to people skills, critical thinking and application of what we learn in school to the real world. My education prepared me on a macro scale, in terms of allowing me to think about the big picture. It enabled me to go out to the world and make sense of what is happening. Upon entering the market place, I learned more about leadership and people management skills, which was grossly lacking in my education years.
4) Where do you draw strength from during your years of medical treatment?
I draw strength from my family members and my faith. I journal every single day, and that helps me a lot. I also found much solace in God and the Scriptures.
5) Where do you see yourself five to 10 years down the road?
Running my own training and consultancy firm, doing what I enjoy doing: speaking, training, and coaching. Family wise, I try to make time for my wife and children and do my best to earn enough to support my family. In the coming year, I am home-schooling my daughters and I hope to impart valuable knowledge and insights to them. It is not easy, but I am prepared to do it at any cost.
6) What other activities do you engage in to inspire or help other people?
I do a lot of motivational speaking at schools, polytechnics and universities. I go to companies and churches to share my story as well. I also help NUH and NKF promote organ donation, to help other patients with kidney failure.
7) Share with us more on the inspiration behind your book Strength in Adversity?
Firstly, it was to chronicle my daily life and take stock of certain milestones in life – such as the more memorable seasons where I got my kidney transplant at 28 and 33, when I became a father. Secondly, the book is for my children as my condition is very volatile; anything can happen. This book will serve as an educational material for my children about resilience.
8) What is one quote you live by today?
Treasure your relationships with family and loved ones. These are what I treasure the most right now.
9) What advice do you have for undergraduates who are facing similar adversities like you?
You need to find an anchor, an unmovable anchor to help you tide through the good and bad. Personally, I found my anchor in life which was my faith. Your anchor should make you feel secure as you grow and mature.
Life is less ideal – understand that life can get very messy. Expect crisis, because our system in Singapore makes people very sheltered and protected. We are taught by the system to follow a tried and tested path to achieve your success, but there are also a big chunk of people who may have mishaps and thus cannot succeed in a one-way standard road.
I would also like to encourage young people to have this breadth of life, to be able to take pain and trauma and also withstand the test of trials and tribulations.
Be a problem solver and cherish your relationships. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are. I knew, for instance, that I am not suited for the corporate life because of my health condition, so I started to seek out opportunities in entrepreneurship and businesses. Gain experiences in internships and work and learn as much as you can.
If I am unable to do something, I will make sure that I delegate the work and ensure that the communication between team members is tight. Manage the team and give them something to look forward to and motivate them. These relationship-building skills are very useful in start-ups and help me to build rapport with stakeholders and clients.
For more information about Aaron Graham Tay, please visit http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/one-body-blow-after-another-but-he-fights-on.
Interested in Aaron’s story of grit and perseverance? You’re in luck because we have 3 copies of Strength in Adversity up for grabs! Simply fill in this form to be entered into a draw. Winners will be notified by email. Best of luck!