Near Death At Singapore General Hospital And Five Lessons I Learnt
I awoke from what I thought was a simple colonoscopy at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) to check my ulcerative colitis (diagnosed in 2004), as I was suffering from a severe flare-up in May 2016. I thought the flare-up would be treated with a simple course of steroids. The expression on the face of the gastroenterologist made him look like he had sucked on a lemon; he was flanked by my wife, who they had asked to come to the hospital urgently, and she was clearly upset. The gastroenterologist informed me that my colon was severely inflamed, and that I needed to be admitted to SGH immediately.
The truth of the matter was that prior to my trip to Singapore, I was treated for the flare up at Jukei Hospital in Japan. However, the doctor gravely misread the severity of my condition and had under-prescribed drugs and misdiagnosed me; I should have been hospitalized, but instead he gave me the green light to fly to Singapore.
Lesson One: Listen to your gut.Literally in my case. If you feel something is not right in business, stop and listen to what your subconscious is telling you. Don’t ignore the early warning signs. My “she’ll be right” attitude landed me in hot water. The subconscious mind is continually working and communicates in the form of hunches, flashes, or intuition. We need to be listening. Mindfulness, prayer, and meditation can be the bridge between the conscious and subconscious.
Despite three weeks of aggressive steroid treatment and a round of Infliximab (Remicade), both forms of treatment failed to have any lasting effect, and the inflammation of the colon was as bad as ever. The doctors suggested that the only course of action was to have my colon removed. The news swirled around my head, together with the image of living life with an ileostomy bag (a surgical opening constructed by bringing the end of the small intestine out onto the surface of the skin. Intestinal waste passes out of the ileostomy and is collected in a pouch). My wife, Gladys, suggested a second opinion. We sought outside counsel, and consulted with a leading gastroenterologist practicing in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. He patiently explained the procedure and the pros and cons; he set my mind at ease, and we decided to move forward with the operation.
Lesson Two: Seek outside counsel.Take the time to seek counsel, thus addressing your fears before you make an important decision. Listen to your fears, seek counsel, collect the facts, and make the decision boldly and decisively.
The surgery itself was successful; however, the recovery was not. I experienced nausea, vomiting, and, as I was unable to hold down any food, I began to lose a considerable amount of weight. It was then determined I had pneumonia and an infection in my lung, and blood was being discharged from my ileostomy bag. Having been in the high-dependency ward initially, after more surgery I was readmitted and things went from bad to worse. June was not a good month, but July was going to prove to be worse. As my condition worsened, the outlook was bleak.
The pain and morphine increased, blood transfusions were given, and my blood pressure reached dangerous levels. Friends flew in to see me and perhaps say their goodbyes, and Gladys and I cried, prayed, and asked for guidance. She begged me to fight. Through the help of Father Francisco Basnayake (Church of St Mary of the Angels) and God’s grace, I dug deep and continued to fight. Day by day, things started to improve.
I had the opportunity to join a support group of patients who were the proud owners of a recently fitted ileostomy bag. Most of the patients were survivors of colon cancer, and almost all spoke of a higher power helping them to have the inner strength to carry on. The patients were from all faiths, and some did not believe in religion, but they all believed that they were able to tap into something. I found my new friends to be gracious and compassionate.
Lesson Three: Spirituality is important.Google offers a course called “search inside yourself” that has proved so popular that the company has created entry-level versions such as “neural self-hacking” and “managing your energy.” The search-engine giant has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. eBay has meditation rooms equipped with pillows and flowers, while Twitter and Facebook also have mindfulness programs (Schumpeter, 2013). Some of the great leaders of our time, such as Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, and Jack Ma, were considered great leaders not because of their position, authority, appearance, personality, management techniques, or heredity, but because they created better futures for people around them; no matter how tough the going got, they never gave up (Rajeev, 2014)
My condition stabilized, and the long slow process of rehabilitation began. My weight sank as low as 30 kg (my normal weight is 75 kg); I was unable to walk, let alone do the basics such as shower and dress myself. My throat muscles had forgotten how to swallow. When I thought of these things, I was overwhelmed and wondered how I could ever resume a normal life. I was reminded that life can only be lived a day at a time, and not to project into the future. Slowly, my 5-meter walk assisted with a frame progressed to 20 meters, which a week later was 30 meters with a walking stick; then I threw the stick away and could walk holding my wife’s hand. Slowly but surely my strength returned, and at the time of writing I can walk for around 30 minutes before tiring.
Lesson four: Focus on marginal gains.Products are not launched in a week, and new drugs and not approved in a year: it takes time. How can you improve performance? Marginal gains involve small improvements in any process that lead to a significant improvement when added together. The concept of marginal gains has revolutionized some sports, and if applied correctly could revolutionize business (Syed, 2015). By looking to improve on our personal best each day, over time we will make significant improvements.
As my health improved and body strengthened, I began to realize how lucky I am. I had survived a near-death experience while surrounded by people who love me and a team of great doctors and nurses. I started to count my blessings, and began to see more joy in the world than I had previously experienced.
Lesson five: Be grateful.American Thanksgiving is such a great idea for a holiday. Our American friends have it right when they stop for a day and give thanks for all they have received. In my homeland of Australia, we all have different ways of showing our gratitude, and a vivid memory of how my beloved father showed his thanks comes quickly to mind. When I was a boy growing up in the dusty farmlands of western New South Wales, each night I would see my father kneel at his bedside and pray with Rosary beads in hand, asking God to open the heavens and pour rain down on our 2000-acre property, Morunda. He would also give thanks for his nine children. Dad had an attitude of gratitude, and encouraged me to think in the same positive way.
Five lessons from my time at SGH, and perhaps soon I’ll be grateful for this experience too.
Peshawaria, Rajeev (2014, March 21). Quantum Mechanics, Spirituality, and Leadership.
Syed, Matthew (2015). Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success. London: John Murray.
Wooldridge, Adrian (2013, November 16). The Mindfulness Business.