Healthy, active and in the prime of their lives, Noel Teh Jing Long and YW Lee encountered near-death experiences that drastically altered their views of the meaning of life. The Pride uncovers their perspectives.
He gave up chasing a SEA Games medal to spend time with family
He was 23 years old, at the prime of his life and on track to being a medalist at the SEA Games.
Then, in Jun 2017, the national cyclist lost everything he worked so hard to achieve.
During one of his training sessions on the road in Singapore, Noel Teh Jing Long crashed into the back of a lorry at a speed of 40 km/h.
The impact knocked him out cold. And left Teh at the brink of death and in a coma for three weeks.
He fractured parts of his head, face, collarbone, spine and ribs. Additionally, as a result of a crack in his skull, Teh lost cerebrospinal fluid – the fluid held in and around the brain and spinal cord – which put him in danger of being permanently paralysed or even losing his life.
Thankfully, three weeks later, Teh came out of his coma.
It has been two years since Teh’s near-fatal accident.
When I sat down for a chat with Teh, who is now 25, I was surprised to see that other than a few scars, he looked and behaved completely normally. I would never have guessed he had suffered a serious and debilitating accident.
It was only when Teh began recalling the trying times he faced after the accident, that I realised just how severe it was.
Gesturing to a thin scar on his throat, Teh told me about how the doctors slit his throat to save his life. “Because I broke my entire jaw, I was totally unable to breathe through my nose or mouth,” he explained. To help him breathe, a tracheostomy was performed where an opening in his neck was created, for a tube to be placed into his windpipe to allow for air to enter his lungs.
To this day, Teh is still riddled with physical scars visibly lining his face, neck, arms and legs. But he doesn’t mind them so much – they are, after all, a testament to his survival.
What was tough for him was going from being a very fit sportsman, to struggling just to stand up, let alone walk.
But it’s not all bad, Teh insisted cheekily: “Before my accident, I used to get breakouts very often. Now, after the blood transfusion I rarely get acne anymore.”
His loved ones helped him push through
And on his road to recovery, his family, friends and teammates stayed with him, caring for him and pushing him to get better.
Teh recalled how his mother stayed unwaveringly by his side: “My mum visited me every single day at the intensive-care unit (ICU) for one and a half months.
“There are no chairs in the ICU, and she stood by my side the entire time she was there – she almost never rested, never left my side.
“She complained about ankle problems after I was discharged, though.” he added guiltily.
The experience helped Teh realise what his priorities in life should be.
Teh admitted that, as a teenager, he was a rebellious child. “I didn’t spend much time with my family. I refused to work for my dad’s restaurant business,” he confessed. “But after my accident, I decided to give my family more thought, and to treasure them more.”
Upon being discharged from hospital, Teh stubbornly clung on to his dream of winning medals. He even flew to the States twice within the next year to train with several teammates.
But eight months ago, when Teh was still in Colorado Springs for an intensive training course, his father fell and suffered a slipped disc.
“I felt so far away from home, and from them,” Teh said. “That was when I realised, my parents are more important than this dream.”
“So after that, when I got home, I officially retired from cycling.”
Teh added simply: “Cycling is my dream, but my parents are my reality.”
Trials and tribulations have taught him valuable life lessons
Today, beyond valuing his parents more, Teh does a lot of things differently.
“I used to be quite an impatient person,” he admitted. “Whenever I cycled on the road, if a driver cut me off or went too close to me… I would get mad, sometimes even aggressive,” he said. But now, Teh says he is much more ‘zen’, because he doesn’t want to spend what time he has being angry.
He has also opened up more in the hope of connecting with others.
“I used to be very introverted. In the past, if you had asked me for an interview… I would have said no,” he smiled shyly, waving his hands. But now, Teh makes it a point to make connections with more people.
Finally, he is grateful for every day he’s awake, for every moment he spends with his family, and for every meal he eats.
He said: “I know it’s cliche, but really, you only live once. As such, I give my best every day. No more procrastination – I don’t know if there will even be a tomorrow. And, I try to worry less about the things that are out of my control.”
Said Teh of his new life motto: “Cherish life, but at the same time, don’t be too cautious – live life with no regrets. You’ll meet a lot of accidents and disasters in life, but you can’t give up.”
She wants to live for those who love her
Like Teh, YW Lee was also involved in a near-tragic accident.
On March 9 last year, Lee was cycling across a zebra crossing when a minibus collided into her. Lee’s body was flung off her bicycle, pinned under the front bumper of the minibus, and dragged for a metre and a half.
Lee, a partner in a consultancy, recalled that, in that instant, time slowed down. She was even able to marvel to herself: “This is what being hit by a bus feels like” at that moment.
But the reality of the situation, along with the pain, soon came crashing down: The accident left her with five cracked ribs, her entire sternum fractured and an open fracture on her right clavicle.
Debilitating pain haunted her for months after her accident
Recovery has been a long and painful process.
“I couldn’t do a lot of normal things for a very long time,” Lee recalled. For months, she was unable to dress herself, or even wash her face.
“And for nine months after my accident, the skin around my right shoulder stayed either numb, or hypersensitive. At times, a gentle touch would feel like a violent smack on sunburnt skin. A friend’s touch would cause me to shriek in pain.
“Other times, I would be unable to feel anything at all, all the way to around my right bicep,” she said, gesturing to her arm.
Her wounds are more than just skin deep
And today, Lee’s life is completely different from two years ago.
“I’ve always been a pretty strong and sporty person,” said the recreational cyclist and dragon-boater. But to this day, Lee’s muscles have yet to fully recover. “I can’t even open a jar by myself now,” Lee said.
A small thing, perhaps, but one that upset her greatly.
Lee explained: “My mother used to joke that my strength was one of her favourite things about me – because I was ‘useful’ and could do things like carry groceries.”
Looking away, Lee said, pained: “Now, I can’t even do that anymore.”
But the worst was the toll the accident took on Lee’s mental health.
When I first met the bubbly and positive 36-year-old, I had no idea she was battling a lifelong mental condition. First diagnosed with depression and anxiety 14 years ago, Lee has now added post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to that list of ailments.
She also admitted that the accident has worsened her depression and anxiety.
Today, Lee lives in a state of constant but unpredictable stress and anxiety.
“The first few weeks after the accident, I didn’t have much mental strength at all,” she said. “I would wake up at 8am, but find myself unable to get out of bed – not because of a lack of strength, but because of a lack of will. I would stay in bed until 6pm, when I would fall asleep.”
On those bad days, she would starve, said Lee, who lives alone.
“I would be so hungry, but I wouldn’t even have the energy to get out of bed to get a piece of chocolate to eat.”
Thankfully, her friends caught wind of her predicament. Lee affectionately shared how, on those dark days, friends would drop by after work with food, to feed Lee and to keep her company.
She also suffers from sudden and unpredictable PTSD.
“I feel so, so much fear when I’m on or near the road,” she explained. “To me, cars seem much closer, and move much faster than they actually do.”
As a result, Lee only crosses the road whenever absolutely necessary. When she does, she tends to scurry across, or grip her friends’ hands as tightly as she can.
She also avoids crossing the road whenever possible.
“Just today, I took a long detour – over 100 metres – just so I wouldn’t have to cross the road,” she said, her voice cracking.
The kindness and concern of others
Thankfully for Lee, she didn’t have to suffer alone. For Lee, the constant support her friends show her, was undoubtedly what helped her push through the dark months that followed her accident.
For an entire week after her accident, Lee’s worried friends took ‘shifts’ and stayed by her side. For Lee, who usually lives alone, their concern helped her find the will to do daily tasks, like getting out of bed, or eating.
“One of my friends would come over to dapao (takeaway) or cook dinner for me – once, she even made me a huge batch of mac and cheese – something I was craving for at that time,” she grinned.
Many of her friends who were based overseas would also make it a point to video-call her nightly, to check on her.
Her friends still show their concern to this day, albeit in different ways.
“People must think I have a lot of boyfriends,” Lee joked. “Because my friends actually still hold my hand when I cross the road.”
Another activity that was critical to the improvement of Lee’s mental health? Her time with DB Hearts, a dragon boating ground-up initiative started in 2016 by a group of dragon boat veterans.
Eight months after her accident, in November 2018, the ex-dragon boater joined DB Hearts.
“DB Hearts helped me put things into perspective,” Lee said. “It has helped me meet very different people from all walks of life.”
The initiative teaches individuals with special needs and certain medical conditions to dragon boat. During paddling sessions, Lee would row with beneficiaries who suffered from a range of conditions, from cancer survivors to the visually impaired.
But, Lee added: “Personally, I feel uncomfortable calling them ‘beneficiaries’ because I feel that I benefit more from them during our interaction, than they do from me.”
She said animatedly: “When I’m suffering in the middle of training, thinking, ‘I can’t push my arms anymore’, and you turn around and see someone less able-bodied than you, who has less dragon boating experience than you, and they’re still holding on – you realise you have no excuse!”
The teamwork of dragon boating also helped force Lee to socialise with others – something that aided her mental health greatly, she said.
It helped that her teammates were kind, too. “One member from DB Hearts works as an insurance agent. Even though he works for a different firm, he handled all my insurance matters regarding my accident,” Lee shared.
“During training sessions, there were times I was a little hard on myself because I was upset that I was ‘weaker’ and ‘slower’ than the others,” Lee said. “The team captain, Desmond Koh, would talk to me to help me navigate my dark thoughts.
“At one point, he found out I had stopped going for my therapy sessions. His immediate reaction was not to scold or lecture me but to offer to pay for my therapy sessions. He simply wanted me to get better.
“I was completely dependent on the kindness of my friends for months,” Lee recalled.
A changed life, a changed perspective
For the optimistic and positive Lee, her accident reaffirmed her desire to spend her life helping others.
Weeks before the fateful accident, Lee had left her previous job with the intention of taking a break to recharge, before using her professional capabilities to help small, local neighbourhood shops flourish.
“I was intending on spending my break relaxing in bed all day,” Lee joked. “I just didn’t realise that it would be forced bed rest!”
Ten months ago, Lee started her own consultancy business.
“When I was much younger, there was a particular mattress store around my childhood home, in Jurong, that I always walked past,” Lee said animatedly.
She added that every Singaporean would probably know of a store like that in their own neighbourhood – one that was owned by a local family, and was practically part of their neighbourhood.
“Small, local shops like these, they can’t afford the services of big consultancy firms in order to expand their business,” Lee explained.
With that in mind, Lee hopes her consultancy will help support neighbourhood shops and start-ups succeed and flourish. And she’s determined to see this project through: “I told my business partner: If it doesn’t work, we make it work. I believe as long as you don’t give up, it will happen.”
Another way Lee is staying true to her promise to help others, is through her commitment to DB Hearts as their strategy and marketing lead. She said: “They helped give me the courage to do many ‘normal’ things again. I just want to give back, and help them flourish.
“The accident changed my life completely. Sure, these days, life is tougher. But I have a lot more perspective,” Lee shared.
“Overall, the aftermath of the accident taught me never to give up,” Lee said, her voice wavering. “I don’t want to give up, because I want to stay alive.”
Her emotions overcoming her, Lee paused, before she added: “I want to stay alive for the people who love me.”
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