At first sight, Ms Ding Mee Hong accompanied by her husband Chew Cheng Chuan seemed like any other couple, till I noticed her deformed fingers and the difference in her walk (the penguin walk as she jokingly called it). That revealed a story in itself, to the toll arthritis had taken on her body and her life. And to the brave fight she had put up not to let it overwhelm her and to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances.
Mee Hong recalls that, “At the point when I was diagnosed with arthritis some thirty years ago, there was very little information, awareness and medical treatment available.” Her situation only got increasingly worse till finally on a visit to Singapore, her cousin took her to a doctor. He then referred her to a rheumatologist in University Hospital, Malaysia. From there on she went through various medications and treatment options.
Between the years 1994 to 1997, Mee Hong had four joint replacement operations done; both her hip joints and her knee joints. But because of that brave decision, she believes, “My life changed positively. I was able to do things I could not do before. And most importantly, today except for needing help to put my shoes on, as I cannot squat, I am very independent.”
There was a time when she was so incapacitated that, “I was unable to climb stairs or feed myself, comb my own hair or even bathe and put on my own clothes! In fact, my husband watching me struggle to climb the stairs would actually piggy-back me up.” Today she travels the world with her husband spending more time abroad than in Sitiawan, Malaysia to manage their business. She does not use the wheelchair even in airports but says, “We go early, walk slow, take our time and browse through shops. The only concession I make is to push a trolley sometimes, as it helps me walk steadier.”
Four operations in a span of three years, I asked incredulously. But Mee Hong says, “I procrastinated and delayed the operations for as long as possible, until the time that it became inevitable. But when I did take the plunge and go through with the first operation, it helped me so much; gave me so much energy and independence, that I actually looked forward to the next one!”
In order to inspire and support others as a way of giving back, she served as Chairman for the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Group for about five years. She and her husband contributed tirelessly to the “My Wira” project that has worked closely with the Ministry of Health to bring greater awareness to RA and to look into the prohibitive cost of medication, treatment and joint parts for replacement, as well as provide special parking and special access for people with arthritis among other things.
Her greatest support is her husband. Says Mee Hong, “He stood by me all along and brought meaning to the words ‘through thick and thin’. I cannot ask for anything more in a marriage and feel completely fulfilled and satisfied. He has come with me for every single doctor’s check-up I have had. Even now, I have to inject myself every week as part of my treatment and he does it for me.”
HER ADVICE TO OTHERS IS
- If you have a pain in your joints go and visit a rheumatologist immediately.Early intervention and treatment can retard and control the spread of the disease. Do not wait until your joints get deformed.
- You are not alone. Don’t retreat into a shell. Come out and join a RA support group. You share, they share and together everybody is empowered.
- Family members support is vital as patients can even slip into depression. Says Mee Hong, “I knew of a 20 year old girl who when first diagnosed confined herself to a room and just cried and cried. When I heard about it, I met with her and advised her to see a rheumatologist and begin treatment immediately. The last I heard, she is doing well, getting on with her life and continuing to work even.”
- Keep busy. Work, pursue a hobby, cook as it keeps your mind occupied on other things besides the pain and the discomfort of the condition. Otherwise fear, anxiety and pain tend to overwhelm the mind.
- You must help yourself as otherwise no saint can help you! “I believe that you have to take charge of your treatment, your health and do your part. There is no point just praying all the time!”