As an inspirational speaker, empowerment coach, ASEAN Para Games medallist, Young Outstanding Singaporean Award and Successful Entrepreneur Award recipient, education and health ambassador, Dr Darren Chua has been pushing boundaries and demonstrating immense strength in helping others – after suffering a near fatal stroke at the tender age of 24, just a few days before he would embark on his housemanship.
Refusing to let his circumstances get the better of him, he decided to use the art of determination to rebuild his life, and commit to using his personal experience to help people realise their strengths and gifts.
1) Share with us the activities you took part in during your time in NUS from 1995 to 2000 when you were pursuing your degree in medicine.
I was the class representative in my first year of school, which saw me oversee 150 students. I was also part of NUS Medicine’s rag and flag in my freshman year. In all my undergraduate years, I was very involved in the play house event, which only takes place in medical school. There was inter year competitions as part of the play house where we would compete in categories like chess, basketball, football etc.The play house activities spanned a few days, culminating in a dance and a play on the last day, which would last for 30 to 45 minutes. The primary objective of the play house was to have fun with each other, and the best part was that it was free!
In my second year, we hosted Japanese students at the medicine faculty. We were given the honour of hosting them as the rest of the faculties were having exams. This was only possible because we had a different academic calendar from the rest of the faculties.
2) What is your greatest takeaway from NUS?
My greatest takeaway is that amidst the heavy commitment in education, we should still strive to enjoy life and live life to the fullest. When I meet up with friends, we will always look back in fondness on our shared memories.
3) What went through your mind when you felt that something was not right with your body on that fateful day? How did your family react to your condition when you had a stroke? Were you able to draw support from your family and close friends who knew about your stroke?
It started with losing half of my visual field but at that point in time, I did not think that I was having a stroke. It was alarming, but I did not want to think too much and went to rest. It was only when I went back to my room and felt a severe headache then I realised the intensity of the headache increased.
I understood that losing your visual field could be a symptom of other illnesses or conditions, so the first thing that came to mind wasn’t a stroke.
My parents were away on a cruise that fateful day, so no one was at home to help me. My younger sister was outside with her friends as well. As I was the only one at home, the only person who I could reach out to was my then girlfriend. She wanted to drive and send me to the hospital but was delayed by a heavy jam. She then decided to call an ambulance for me to pick me up from my house. I remembered that I helped the ambulance by going to the front door of my house, to wait for the ambulance. I also remember falling when I tried to stand up.
I was unconscious for three weeks and was subsequently hospitalised for six months at the National University Hospital(NUH). When I was admitted, the doctor needed to perform an immediate surgery on me, which involved having to cut one-third of my skull to release the pressure on the skull (kerectomy) to administer the appropriate treatment. To do that, they had to induce a coma on my body before the surgery.
I only woke up three weeks later and felt immensely grateful and happy for being alive. The doctors saved my life but did not know my level of functionality. I can only see the left side (haminoeid) of things.
Then, I saw my friends doing house man work in the hospitals. Realising that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do all along, I became sad, confused, demoralised and crestfallen. I was also not able to speak, move or see half of my visual field. I was really irritated and frustrated. Every organ in my body was not working as my stroke was too severe. I had to have a tube inserted all over my body to feed me.
My close friends were all housemen and were very busy, so I couldn’t draw any emotional or social support from them. The support that I had was from my then girlfriend and my family.
4) You mentioned that you felt like you were in a prison during the time of your stroke. How did you find it in yourself to realign your thinking from being a prisoner of four walls to a prisoner of hope?
I had to change my mindset, from what I can’t do, to what I can still do with my body. Although I realised that I could not do many things, I would still tell myself to focus on my rehabilitation and focus on what I could still do. I decided to be as engaging as possible with my rehabilitation specialist as I believed that when they saw me being motivated they will also feel motivated as well.
There were also times when I broke down during my rehabilitation. Once, it was because I had to link up the numbers from one to 20 but couldn’t recognise the numbers after 13. The other time I broke down was because I was very moved when my professor visited me in the hospital as we were very close.
5) When you were in rehabilitation, how did you feel? Were there moments of anguish? Or more moments of hope? What were you expected to do in rehabilitation? What happened to your horsemanship, did you continue?
From 2001 to 2003, the only thing that kept me going was my cognitive ability, which was still intact and unaffected like some other people. To me, I could still carry on my journey to be a medical doctor. I knew I had to get my body back in order so I could go back to complete my housemanship.
However, I was told by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) that they could not give me the housemanship as they felt that I may not be able to respond in time in the case of an emergency in the hospital. They thought that I may not be fast enough to respond to patients who needed an immediate attention. As the SMC was very concerned about this, I was thus not awarded the license for my housemanship.
Therefore, I am a certified doctor but cannot practice medicine.
When I was in rehabilitation, a lot of time was spent trying to tell myself that tomorrow will be a better day. I will always try and look forward to a better day, but there will always be days where I do not feel very well. After three to four months at NUH, I was then transferred to the Ang Mo Kio Rehabilitation Hospital.
For someone who went to medical school, not being able to complete some of the rehabilitation exercises was very startling for me. Nonetheless, I tried to be as positive as I could. I was in rehabilitation for three years, three times each week. At home, I did my own rehabilitation by walking up stairs and doing my own stretching. I was very determined to recover as I wanted to complete my housemanship.
By the end of year 2000, I was out of the wheelchair but had to rely on a walking stick. In 2003, I was completely stripped of walking aids and could walk in a slow manner. Gradually, I also regained my speaking abilities, but my command of the Chinese language was gone.
During 2004 to 2005, after coming to terms that I could not be a neurosurgeon, I thought that the next best thing was to do something relevant in a healthcare setting. I then started working as a healthcare administrator and dealt with doctors and patients every day. Soon, I realised that I did not like doing administrative work and did not excel at it. I felt like I was not living up to the gifts and talents that I had. Thus, I changed course and went to pursue my masters and spent more time thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.
It was only when I realised that I don’t have to be a medical worker just because I have a degree in medicine did I decide to start teaching, as I wanted to impact and add value to people. I was already giving part-time tuition while working as a healthcare administrator. Although teaching and doctoring are different, both are similar in many ways as you use your skills to help other people.
We are all here to be a blessing to the people around us with the gifts and talents we have. We are not defined according to our job scopes, but how we use our talents to add value to people.
6) You lost your memory in the years where you had the stroke, can you remember them now? Which part of your life did you forget?
The memories that I lost were of the three weeks between losing consciousness and the weeks after that. I couldn’t express myself in 2000 but in 2001 I started recovering my speech. I relearned the English language by using the famous Peter and Jane book. I learnt how to speak using phonics too.
7) What gave you the push or motivation to challenge your mind and pursue a Master’s degree in NUS?
I pursued my masters from 2005 to 2007, as I wanted to prove to myself that I was still able to achieve what I wanted to. Passionate about health, I pursued a Master’s Degree that delved into the impact of Chemotherapy across ethnicity. With in-depth study and research, I developed a thesis that illustrated the differences in side effects between Asian and Caucasian populations. I had a strong desire to show myself that cognitively I was still able.
8) Share with us more on the inspiration for the Art of Determination.
Through the Art of Determination, I wanted to share that ultimately, our life is being defined by us and we can live a life that we truly want despite the trials we face.
I enjoyed my time with students when I did part-time tutoring and I am someone who enjoys the interaction. Realising my love and passion for teaching and being around students, I started teaching at a tuition centre for primary and secondary school students, built on the idea that a child from any background or situation can succeed in life with the right mindset, tools, and determination.
Subsequently, I was a full-time tutor for upper secondary, teaching Biology, Chemistry and Physics. This year, I now work three times a week at the Dean’s Office of the National University Hospital Singapore. I also focus on my motivational talks in my free time.
9) What is your advice for young undergraduates who are still looking for their purpose and meaning in life?
There are always problems in life. The key thing is not to focus on the problem but on the bright side of things.
When I focused on the stroke, everything just spiralled downwards. The only way is to have a new mindset and think of another perspective, for example, given the fact that I have a stroke, what is it that I still can do. Once you shift and adjust your thinking, you will realise opportunities that you still have, to break out and to breakthrough.
As an inspirational speaker, I share my story and remind people that we are not defined by our problems, but by the things that we are still able to do.
That is also the reason why I am also a para-athlete, playing sports even though I am not a very sporty person. But I feel comforted knowing that I can still excel in sports even if I have a physical problem. Moreover, I am going for the Spartan race this coming March!
Always remember that despite our challenges, it is still possible to have a life we desire with the correct mindset!
Find out more about Dr Darren Chua at www.drdarrenchua.com and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-darren-chua-69366648/
All photos courtesy of Dr Darren Chua