My Day Of Reckoning Has Finally Come – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 29 March, 2015

My day of reckoning has finally come
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 29, 2015, Sunday


THE day I wished to never come has finally caught up with me. There are things one just cannot escape from by just wishing for them to go away.

Over the past two years, my blood pressure readings have slowly but surely been creeping up. The doctors gave me the option to take medicine the last few times when I went for my medical check-ups. I had resisted with the hope that it would go down somehow with promises to monitor it closely.

Earlier in the year, the reading shot up to as high as 179/116 mm Hg. I should have sought medical attention. I am at Stage 4 chronic kidney disease. My renal function is severely impaired. High blood pressure could further damage the tiny blood vessels in my kidneys.

I attributed the spike to the stress of conducting a two-week intensive course that saw me sleeping only three hours nightly for the entire duration. I thought the pressure would go back down afterwards.

My father had a history of hypertension and heart problems. He was diagnosed with it when he was around my age. Over a period of 30 years, as his condition progressively worsened, he suffered chests pains, breathlessness, irregular heartbeats, a stroke and multiple cardiac arrests.

He was bedridden for the last few months of his life. As his heart could no longer pump blood adequately, he was always gasping for air. A nasal cannula fed oxygen into his nostrils from a tank all the time.

I witnessed the torment he went through and wished there was something I could do to alleviate his suffering. In reality, there was very little anyone could do for him except to make him comfortable. He finally succumbed at the age of 78.

Of all the things I inherited from him, I am glad I did not inherit his penchant for smoking and passion for brandy. Both vices are proven major health risks. I am certain both were contributing factors to the problems with his health.

He started smoking when he was only seven by stealing puffs from the bamboo water pipe of an elderly neighbour. By the time I was old enough to remember, he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Whenever he was out of them, he would send me to the sundry shop nearby to buy a pack or two for him.

There was always a bottle or two of brandy in the cabinet to celebrate special occasions in the family which was very often. His love for it was cultivated when he was working in the underground tin mine in Kaki Bukit in the northern state of Perlis. The nights were cold. The spirits kept him warm.

As for me, my blood pressure was still higher than it should be after the intensive course ended. Instead of seeing a doctor, I tried the folk remedy of ingesting the leaves of Andrographis paniculata. This herb, also known as hempedu bumi in Malay, thrives in our garden.

My mother used to pluck seven or eight leaves early in the morning and mash them into a pulp with a mortar and pestle. The extracted juice was then mixed with a tablespoon of honey to mask the extremely bitter taste. My father took it religiously every morning. It was supposedly effective for high blood pressure.
Unfortunately, it did not work for me.

I had a medical review coming up and became more and more fidgety as the day drew nearer. I was half sure the untreated high blood pressure had damaged my kidneys to the extent I would require dialysis. I had mentally prepared myself for the worst.

When I went to see the nephrologist last Wednesday, he was alarmed my blood pressure was dangerously high. He asked me what my usual readings were. I told him my systolic pressure (the blood pressure when the heart contracts and pumps blood into the arteries) fluctuated between 130 mm Hg and 160 mm Hg but never that high.

I speculated with him that the elevated reading could be caused by my full bladder. I had two medical appointments back to back that morning and had not had the opportunity to go to the toilet yet. I should have emptied my bladder but was rushing for time.

According to him, my deteriorating renal function could also cause hypertension. I was prescribed Amlodipine to keep my blood pressure in check. At the same time, I was to note down my blood pressure daily and bring the record on my next visit.

I used to associate high blood pressure and the need for medicine to control it with old age. There is no way I can avoid not taking the medicine for hypertension now. I guess I have stepped into that phase of life with this new development. Well, it could have been worse.

After my first dose of Amlodipine, my blood pressure has stabilised to around 120/80 mm Hg. This is the pressure I aim to maintain. Together with a low-protein and low-salt diet, I hope to delay the need for dialysis for as long as possible.

Additionally, my blood test showed there was little change in my renal function from the last test six months ago. The ultrasound of my kidneys and bladder yielded similar results. These are the small mercies I have learnt to appreciate. My anxieties disappeared just like that. I am glad for another reprieve.

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The Friend I Never Met – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 22 March, 2015

The friend I never met
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 22, 2015, Sunday


THIS is the story of a friend I have never met in person. We got connected in 2007. He found my blog and contacted me through Facebook. We lived in the same city. Like me, he has spinal cord injury but at a higher level. His arms are weak and he has no hand function whatsoever.

He is dependent on his mother for all his activities of daily living. She has to assist him with everything from his personal hygiene to feeding him. As she does not have the strength to move him from bed to wheelchair by herself, he spends most of his time in bed.

When I suggested that I dropped by his house one day, he flatly refused. He said he was not ready to meet me. I left it at that. We continued to communicate online though. He would be exuberant on one day and display signs of depression on another. Our conversations would somehow revolve back to one subject.

“I want to die,” he would tell me. “There is nothing I can do for myself. There is no meaning to life for me.” It was disconcerting to listen to him go on and on about it. Nothing I said could convince him otherwise. I also did not want to push him too much in case he decided it was not in his best interests to confide in me any more.

“How are you going to do it?” I would ask him, exasperated at his insistence on taking his own life.

He had no idea. His was not an isolated case. People with severe physical impairments have harboured such thoughts one time or another. The general attitude towards having impairments is that it is a tragedy. The more severe the impairment, the greater the tragedy.

“You are so brave,” a stranger told me once. “If I were you, I would rather die.”

These people speak without realising how tactless, offensive and demotivating those words could be. It took us years to come to terms with our impairments and move on in life, trying to make the best of what we have.

And here are people who take one look at us, imagine themselves in our situation and quickly come to the conclusion our lives are pretty much worthless. Such thoughts can be self-perpetuating as is evident by how disabled people are generally viewed and even how we disabled people see ourselves.

On top of the negative perceptions, there is another reason why some disabled people feel hopeless and helpless. The lack of a strong social support system to address the emotional, informational and financial aspects of the issues we have to struggle with creates a lot of uncertainty.

Whatever social support that is provided now, either by the government, disabled people’s organisations or other disabled people, is insufficient and done on an ad hoc basis. There is no long-term organised programme to this end.

For those of us who are dependent on our parents or spouse to support us physically and financially, our most pressing concern is how we can go on should we outlive them. Although lifelong protection and social support is provided for in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, nothing concrete has been initiated to address this matter.
This inadequate social support affects our quality of life. We are constantly shrouded in a state of anxiety. We worry about money. We worry about the cost of the equipment we need. With no definite solution to our dilemmas, it is no wonder some of us see ending it all as the only option.

However, most of the time, these are cries for help more than anything else. We have no idea where to go for assistance or how to go about it. The government can begin by playing a more active role in the social support system by simplifying the application process for assistance and expediting the disbursement of aid. This would help a great deal in easing the financial burdens of the family.

Back to my friend, eight years on, his outlook on life now confounds me. Not only is he still alive and kicking, he has turned his life around. He has picked himself up and is no longer the person I used to know.
Seeing him smiling from ear to ear and being surrounded by friends in the photographs he posted on Facebook, it is hard to believe he was depressed to the extent of wanting to end his own life at one time. Imagine what he would be missing had he carried through with that thought.

I have no idea what changed him. Our online chats have reduced to mostly hellos and goodbyes. He no longer talks about death. For that alone, I am happy for him. Perhaps one day soon, I will suggest that we meet in person again. Perhaps then I can pick his brain on this radical change in his attitude. It will be a guiding light to other people who are caught in the predicament he was in.

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Deceivingly Delicious Stew of Leftovers – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 15 March, 2015

Deceivingly delicious stew of leftovers
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 15, 2015, Sunday

Kiam chai boey is a stew of Chinese mustard and leftover food.
Kiam chai boey is a stew of Chinese mustard and leftover food.

WHAT I like about being a Malaysian is that we are always looking for opportunities to indulge in feasts to the extent of gluttony. There is always something to celebrate – birthdays, religious and seasonal festivals, births, death anniversaries – and the list goes on. Sometimes, we do not even need a reason.

My family used to live in a community that practised a mix of Buddhism and Taoism, which was what my father and the rest of the family members embraced as well. Every few months or so, there would be occasions where roast pork, roast duck and home-cooked dishes were proffered at temples or at the home altar in commemoration of one event or another. These we would later eat together with our meals after the prayers.

As my father’s engineering consultancy thrived, so did the food portions offered in prayer. There was always more than enough to leave the family and guests fully stuffed many times over. At the end of the day, the large refrigerator would be bursting at its seams as every available nook would be crammed with leftovers.

It would appear to be extravagant and wasteful to prepare more than we could possibly eat. But we were very thrifty when it came to food. No leftovers in our family have ever gone to waste.

We were taught to never waste whatever was served on the dining table. Not even a morsel of rice should be left on the plate when we were done with our meals.

The bony parts of the roast pork and duck that were usually discarded were the most treasured bits. Even the mongrels we kept as pets under the porch would never get to enjoy the pork bones which they loved to nibble on.

On the day after the feast, the kitchen would be abuzz with activities again as the womenfolk would be busy preparing a dish that was more yearned for than all the delicious food we had savoured the day before. The biggest enamel pot in the kitchen would be taken out and placed over the charcoal stove.

The bones would be simmered slowly in a stew of tamarind juice, dried chillies, onions, carrots, peppercorns, tomatoes and pickled plums to make a taste that is flavoursome and appetising at the same time, not to mention spicy from all the spices added. The leftover food was then thrown in together with an extra roast pig trotter or two for the meat and to enhance the taste.

Chinese mustard would be the last to be added to ensure that it did not become too soft. This vegetable is an important ingredient. Cooking sometimes had to be delayed for several days when there was a shortage in the market, especially during the rainy season.

Called kiam chai boey, this was the stew I grew up eating and grew to love. Literally translated from Hokkien, it means salted vegetables and leftovers. The ingredients may sound disgusting. That is why it can never be found on the menu of respectable Chinese restaurants. Who in their right frame of mind would serve or order something made from leftover food in these establishments?

No two kiam chai boey are the same. Every family has their own recipe. The leftovers and spices could be different too. The kind of festival or feast also plays a part. For example, the taste of one cooked with ingredients mostly from steamboat would be markedly different from one cooked with stir-fried ingredients.

In my younger days, I could eat two full plates of rice with just the kiam chai boey for lunch and another two plates for dinner. I would pile the vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and really tender meat from the trotter and enjoy it with some soy sauce. That was how much I loved it.

It is a wonder my wife Wuan loves this dish as much too. Whenever she makes this stew, we would cook extra rice to go with it. Since we seldom celebrate at home, preferring to eat out on special occasions, there are no leftovers. All of the ingredients used are bought fresh from the market. In that sense, our kiam chai boey is not cooked with leftover food.

Of course, it does not taste exactly the same as those that I remember but as Wuan is generous with the ingredients like roast pork trotter, the stew is equally mouth-watering with the same degree of piquancy that I love. I have no complaints. It is as good as it can get considering the limitations.

Lucky me she cooked a potful of it last Saturday. I was hankering for some. The stars must have been in perfect alignment. There was roast pork in the freezer. Chinese mustard was plentiful in the market. I am ashamed to admit I ate more than I should or could. It was absolutely sinful but my appetite was well satiated. The kiam chai boey, despite what goes into cooking it, is one stew I will always enjoy.

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