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We often find it difficult to talk about death.
It is hard to deal with our emotions when it strikes a loved one. It is harder still when we consider the end of our own lives.
Oct 9 is World Hospice and Palliative Care Day. Palliative care, which focuses on improving the quality of life of patients and their families through the prevention and relief of suffering, is not often discussed, perhaps due to the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness that arise.
A charity in Singapore, Ambulance Wish Singapore, addresses this difficult topic by granting wishes, bringing some comfort to the terminally ill and their families.
Celebrating 50 years together with a special stay
Since they got married in 1971, the Pereras have celebrated their wedding anniversary every year with family and friends.
Covid put a damper on that, and they’ve had to reduce the size of their gatherings to adhere to safe management measures.
Patrick Perera, 86, and his wife, Manelle, 81, met each other in the Sinhalese community in Singapore and the couple worked together at the then-Singapore Telecoms: he at the technical area of the telephone exchange, and she in operations.
They have a daughter, Michelle, 49, who lives in the UK with her husband and two sons; and a son, Conrad, 44, who is married with a son and daughter.
Both Patrick and Manelle are receiving palliative care at the Assisi Hospice for heart disease.
Patrick, who gets breathless because of his scarred lungs, lets his wife do most of the talking when we meet him but chimes in to declare, “We’re still in love!”
He even asks if this writer is married before sharing a few words of wisdom: “I want to share a secret that has kept us together for 50 years. Whenever you are wrong, admit it. Whenever you are right, shut up!”
When the couple had a small (but safely distanced) wedding anniversary celebration at Assisi Hospice in August, Mr Perera worked with a music therapist to manage his breathlessness so that he could serenade his wife with a song and express his love through a speech.
Family is important to the couple and they use the word ‘love’ liberally when they talk about their children and grandchildren.
“We are a close family,” says Manelle, “We have lots of love.”
At the hospice, Patrick spends most of his time sharing stories from his time as a trade unionist while his wife gardens or makes costume jewellery.
The Pereras could not have their usual party to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year because of Covid.
“I wish there was no Covid so that our daughter and our two grandsons can come and visit,” says Manelle wistfully. Covid meant that the couple could only celebrate their milestone anniversary with their son and his family, rather than with a larger group of loved ones.
So when the couple met volunteers from Ambulance Wish Singapore, that was their wish: To celebrate their wedding anniversary in a special way.
As Patrick gets breathless easily due to his heart and lung conditions, Manelle had a simple request: A hotel stay.
So on Sept 5, Ambulance Wish Singapore got the couple a room at the Wanderlust Hotel and a hard-to-get dinner reservation at Kotuwa, the Sri Lankan restaurant at the same hotel.
Hailing from the Sinhalese community, the couple enjoy good Sri Lankan cuisine. (They cheerfully educate The Pride on Sri Lankan food: “String hoppers are putu mayam. Hoppers are apom, and we had really good hoppers at the dinner.”)
Manelle recalls fondly how they walked into the hotel room to find it beautifully decorated with balloons and a ‘Happy Anniversary’ spelled out on the bed. Best of all, the adjoining room was reserved for their daughter-in-law and grandchildren so that they could enjoy time with the family. Conrad couldn’t join them because of the five-person dine-in limit.
“We were so touched, it was really nice. We wish we were in better health but to have this helped, we are grateful.” She adds, “It’s not about the place. As long as this was given to us with love, we feel very very blessed.”
Spending time with family on a cruise on a yacht
Chiok Hui Min, 22, loves travelling and would like to visit Japan.
She was introduced to Ambulance Wish by her medical care team, who shared with the charity that as travelling to Japan was out of the question because of Covid, her wish was to go on a cruise with her family onboard a yacht.
Hui Min shares delightedly with The Pride that her wish day on Sept 30 started with a sumptuous Japanese lunch delivered to her home. “There was a lot more food than I expected.”
The lunch came with her fav drink from her favourite bubble tea shop and even a cake shaped like a cup of bubble tea.
Her family of six, including her parents, grandmother, sister and brother, were tested for Covid with the help of a doctor who volunteered to administer the antigen rapid tests (ART) at their home. This saved them a trip to the clinic so that Hui Min could conserve her energy for the outing.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore played an important role in granting special permission to the family to gather onboard the yacht, given that this number exceeded the limit under Covid safe management measures.
The party on the yacht came with more surprises for Hui Min. She was presented with a yukata (a more casual version of a kimono) and had other presents waiting for her, wrapped up in paper with images of cats.
“I don’t even know how they found out I liked cats,” says Hui Min, smiling at the memory.
Hui Min was only a few weeks into her first year of psychology at NUS when she was diagnosed with her illness, which she declines to disclose.
“That was three years ago. My friends are in Year 4 now.”
She looks somber when we ask about her illness, so we turn the conversation back to her day out.
Hui Min’s face lights up when she describes the pretty Japanese-themed decorations and balloons on the yacht.
“I have never been on a cruise before but it was not suitable because of possible exposure to the Covid virus. The yacht provided a more intimate experience for my family.”
“We don’t really take a lot of photos together and we’re not the type to share our feelings, so the photos that we took on the yacht were photos that we could add to our memories.
“It really helped my family.”
Finding a different perspective of death
Dr Kwek Kon Yew is one of the founding board directors of Ambulance Wish Singapore and was part of the team of volunteers that helped put Hui Min’s wish together.
Trained as a medical doctor, Kon Yew, 44, now works in research and development in biotechnology, focusing on treatment for cancer.
Like many of us, Kon Yew was previously afraid to broach the topic of death.
He shares with The Pride that he lost his father to cancer while he was still a medical student, and as he grew as a doctor, he developed a passion to care for those in the last stages of their lives, which also led him to doing a diploma in palliative care.
Says Kon Yew: “We hope to bring comfort to the beneficiaries in this vulnerable time, to show them that people care. We want to create beautiful memories that the family can treasure. The pain of loss never really goes away, but the memories can be a source of comfort.”
Since it was founded in 2019, Ambulance Wish Singapore has granted more than 50 wishes. Covid safe distancing measures have curtailed some activities but the charity is slowly picking up again.
Typically, palliative care teams, such as doctors, nurses and social workers, refer terminally ill patients to Ambulance Wish Singapore.
“If the wishes meet our criteria, we go all out to fulfil them. We have not had to turn away a wish yet,” explains Kon Yew.
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The charity helps Singaporeans or permanent residents who are 19 years old and above, who have a less than 12-month prognosis, and who have not received a wish from another organisation.
Chua Xiu Juan, 32, was part of the team of volunteers at Ambulance Wish Singapore that organised the Pereras’ wedding anniversary celebration.
She tells The Pride, “Seeing the love and joy in Mr and Mrs Perera’s family made me realise that what I do at Ambulance Wish Singapore celebrates life, rather than focuses on death.”
Having volunteered with Ambulance Wish Singapore for more than a year, she has gained a different perspective of death.
“Death may be a taboo subject and a sad thing to encounter – nobody likes to part. But at the end of it, every life is worth celebrating. That’s what we hope to do when we plan wishes for the beneficiary and the family, to help them spend time together and celebrate the beneficiary’s life.”