Monday 12 August 2013

Cabby donates liver to stranger

Sick civil servant was counting his last days when cabby responded to an appeal for help
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 11 Aug 2013

Mr Tong Ming Ming, 34 (standing in picture on right), was on a tea break during reservist training in early March when an SMS and a Facebook post by his secondary school friend Regina Lim caught his eye.

She wrote that a mutual friend's colleague was likely to die within days if he did not receive a liver transplant. The family was urgently looking for a living donor who, among other things, had to weigh 80kg or more. Could anyone please help?

Mr Tong, a big, burly cabby and former police officer, messaged his old friend immediately to find out more.

The patient, civil servant Toh Lai Keng, 43, from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), was a colleague of their mutual friend from their Peicai Secondary School days, Ms Leow Shee Yin.

Within minutes, Mr Tong was on the line with Ms Leow. "She was in tears, saying the illness was very sudden and that he had a very young son," recalled Mr Tong.

By then, Mr Toh's wife, Samantha, 40, and brother, Jeffrey, 42, had failed the tests to be donors.

"Time was running out. I just knew that I had to help," Mr Tong recalled.

He made that decision on March 11. After four days of tests, checks and interviews, he underwent a nine-hour operation at the National University Hospital (NUH) to donate most of his liver to Mr Toh on March 15.

Today, nearly five months on, both donor and recipient are doing well.

The Ministry of Health confirmed that this was the first altruistic liver donation here by an unrelated living donor - someone with no blood or emotional ties to the patient.

To most people, including the man who received the gift of life, the genial, soft-spoken bachelor's generosity is beyond comprehension.

"What can I say? He's a great man," said Mr Toh, his voice tinged with emotion. "Human beings are selfish. I can't think of anyone else who would do this for a stranger."

Sudden illness

Before his brush with death in March, Mr Toh, a food-loving father of a three-year-old son, had no history of liver problems. In fact, when he first fell ill with high fever and was hospitalised at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in early March, he thought he had dengue fever.

But tests showed his liver was failing rapidly. By March 7 - a Thursday evening - he was transferred to NUH which has liver transplant facilities. By the following Tuesday, he was in a coma.

The cause of his liver failure remains unknown. "They told my wife I had a week to live," said Mr Toh.

It was serendipitous that his colleague, Ms Leow, confided in her friend Ms Lim about his desperate situation, and that Ms Lim in turn went on Facebook, and her post touched Mr Tong.

The cabby needed extensive tests and interviews, including one with an independent ethics committee, to ensure he was psychologically sound, not coerced and no money had changed hands, before the operation on March 15. The risks of the procedure were also explained to him.

"Things just fell in place when Ming Ming came on the scene," said Mr Toh, a deputy director at MHA. "I guess it was a miracle."

Both men hope their experience will show others that much-needed organs can come from people who are not friends or family. "With his kindness and generosity, Ming Ming has shown that even strangers can step forward to save lives," said Mr Toh.

Since the operation, the men have visited each other at home, shared meals and are now friends.

They also discovered a long-lost kampung connection - the extended Toh and Tong families used to live near each other in the Braddell area when they were children. "It's really unbelievable," marvelled Mr Toh.

Ask Mr Tong why he stepped forward and he points heavenwards. "It's a calling," he said with a laugh, referring to his Christian faith.

But dig deeper and other reasons pour forth.

Having grown up with an absent father, he kept thinking of Mr Toh's wife and young son, Terence, who could have lost his dad before even getting to know him.

Also, he was satisfied that the procedure would be safe. "The liver can grow back, so I will be fine," he said.

"As a cabby, there is probably a greater chance of dying in a road accident," he added with a laugh.

Friends like Ms Lim and Ms Leow, both 34-year-old mothers who met Mr Tong in school more than two decades ago, are not surprised by his large-heartedness.

"When we were urgently looking for a donor, I did not think of Ming Ming," said Ms Leow. "But in hindsight, if anyone could have done this, it was him."

She remembers his zeal to help others during the compulsory community involvement programmes of their schooldays. "Most of us stopped volunteering after secondary school, but Ming Ming never gave up. He really, really wants to help others," she said.

A graduate of Temasek Polytechnic, Mr Tong has long been hooked on helping. As a taxi driver since January, he has ferried amputees for medical appointments, kidney patients for dialysis and poor older folk to church.

He said he usually waives the fare, but some regular passengers pay a token sum.

He has donated blood in response to urgent appeals, helps to clean homes of the elderly in one- room rental flats in Upper Boon Keng, and leaves food packets for immobile old people in Chinatown.

"There is a lot of need in Singapore if you know where to look," he said. "I do what I can to help."

His choice of jobs so far also reflects his passion to do good. As a boy, he saw police officers coming to his family's three-room Hougang home when they were harassed by loan sharks. His cabby father, a gambler, would chalk up huge debts.

"The officers were kind and would protect us. From then on, I always wanted to be an officer," he said.

He joined the police force after graduation in 1998. He has also worked in the social service sector, looking after abandoned, abused and delinquent children.

The youngest of three sons also recalled how his parents and grandparents were forced to sell their adjacent HDB flats to settle his father's gambling debts.

His role model is his mother, Madam Neo Teng Huay, 63, who raised her sons by working 12 hours a day selling curry puffs in a coffee shop. "She has faced hardship, but is never bitter. She always helps others."

Mr Tong said that although the family always had food on the table, his hardscrabble childhood has helped him form lasting bonds with some of the bruised and broken boys he encountered while working in youth homes.

Many may think that with so much hardship and suffering, it is impossible to change the world, but Mr Tong said: "If you can help even one person in need, you would have done just that."

Great gesture

"What can I say? He's a great man. With his kindness and generosity, Ming Ming has shown that even strangers can step forward to save lives."

- Recipient TOH LAI KENG. Mr Tong stepped forward in time after doctors said Mr Toh had a week to live.

It's safe

"The liver can grow back, so I will be fine. As a cabby, there is probably a greater chance of dying in a road accident."

- Donor TONG MING MING. Before the operation, he underwent extensive interviews to ensure he was psychologically sound, not coerced and no money had changed hands.

By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 11 Aug 2013

Transplants from living donors are still rare in Singapore. There were only 28 such kidney transplants and 10 liver transplants last year and the vast majority of donors were family members or friends of the recipient.

Altruistic organ donations, where the recipient and donor do not know each other, are exceptional.

Liver donations are considered riskier than kidney donations - and are much less common. Demand for livers is also far smaller. As of the end of last year, there were 457 people waiting for kidney transplants and 23 for liver transplants (see chart).

National University Hospital (NUH) transplant coordinator Priscilla Wee told The Sunday Times there are extensive checks by doctors, psychiatrists and medical social workers to ensure that altruistic donors are psychologically sound, not coerced and money is not exchanged. Each case is also assessed by an independent ethics committee.

In the case of bachelor cabby Tong Ming Ming, who donated part of his liver to a stranger, his mother and the friend who knew the recipient were also interviewed.

Donors have a 10 to 15 per cent risk of complications. "However, at NUH, we have not had any deaths or serious complications from any of the donors for adult liver transplants from living donors," said Ms Wee.

The vast majority of organ transplants in Singapore are from dead donors or family members of patients.

Cabby who donated liver gets Good Samaritan award
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 18 Aug 2013

Cabby Tong Ming Ming, 34, touched a chord in Singaporeans from all walks of life when The Sunday Times reported last week that he donated a part of his liver to a stranger on the brink of death.

More than 60 readers commended him online and in e-mails to The Sunday Times, and the story garnered more than 400 Likes on The Straits Times Facebook page.

Two organisations are honouring him, BBC World wants to interview him, Dunman High students want to meet him for a project and a dermatologist has offered help with his scar, free of charge.

But, perhaps most important of all, two adult children of liver failure patients who are considering donating a part of their liver, reached out to him for reassurance.

One of them, primary school teacher Lee Siew Kiang, 35, will undergo surgery tomorrow to donate a part of her liver to her father who has liver cancer.

Mr Tong, 34, gave his gift of life to civil servant Toh Lai Keng, 43, in March in a nine-hour operation at the National University Hospital. Both men are doing well.

The Government subsidised half the cost of the operation - as it does for all transplant cases involving Singapore citizens.

Mr Toh will pay Mr Tong's bills even in future for expenses related to the surgery.

Mr Tong is the first living donor here to give a part of his liver to someone with whom he has no blood or emotional ties.

Ms Lee, the eldest of four daughters, said she knew of Mr Tong through a common friend and had exchanged text messages with him before his story became public. At the time, her dad, retired electrician Lee Gin Owin, 57, had reservations about the operation. Like any parent, he worried for her health.

"But Ming Ming's front-page photo, looking so healthy and happy, helped reassure him," she said. "He is much less worried now."

Ms Lee said she is aware of the risks of the operation and that her fate may not be the same as Mr Tong's. "But he is a real inspiration. If he can do this for a stranger, I can do it for my dad," she said.

The Rotary Club of Singapore, meanwhile, contacted Mr Tong yesterday to inform him that it is giving him a Good Samaritan award, which includes a $1,000 cash prize and a certificate.

Instituted in 1998, the award recognises and encourages public spiritedness, said chairman of the club's community service committee Ronald Wong. "We just want to thank Mr Tong for his exemplary kindness," he said.

Meanwhile, Allswell Trading, which represents energy drink Red Bull in Singapore, has made Mr Tong a nominee in an ongoing campaign to identify and honour "Real Singapore Heroes", said the company's director Lam Pin Woon.

"Mr Tong's act of kindness to a stranger is an inspiration to all Singaporeans and exemplifies the true spirit of a real Singapore hero," said Mr Lam.

Yesterday, the company presented him with $500 in cash and said it plans to send Red Bull products worth another $500 to his home.

Dozens of readers too responded with warmth and admiration.

At the website, reader Tricia Lye called him "Light of the World".

Another said he was "the best thing to happen on our 48th National Day". A third called him a "true son of Singapore".

Reader Sabrina Wong e-mailed to say she wanted Mr Tong to know that "his kindness not only touched the lives of Mr Toh and family, but also touched the hearts of those of us who are kind but not half as brave".

In a separate note to Mr Tong, she said: "Just knowing that Singapore has someone like you makes me feel proud."

The bachelor at the centre of all this attention, meanwhile, lets on that he received more than 100 Facebook friend requests after the article. And although a tad "embarrassed" with the spotlight, he is glad his story helped spread awareness of living-donor transplants.

"Donors must evaluate the risks for themselves," he said. "But if my story can help save even a single life, I will be more than happy."

One man's gift of life
Editorial, The Sunday Times, 18 Aug 2013

Cabby Tong Ming Ming, 34, might not grab the immediate attention of millions amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. But he deserves a standing ovation for doing what few might contemplate - donating part of a vital organ to save the life of a stranger.

In an indifferent world, Mr Tong believes that an individual can make a difference if he reaches out to help even one fellow human being. Spurred by this honest-to-goodness motivation, he submitted himself to four days of intensive tests and interviews and then to a nine-hour operation at the National University Hospital. Health-care workers were doubtless extra careful before proceeding because it is the first case here of an altruistic liver donation by an unrelated donor. In 2002, television actor Pierre Png made the headlines when he donated part of his liver to his then girlfriend (and now wife) Andrea de Cruz. Though the liver of a healthy person is able to regenerate, the scar on Mr Tong's abdomen will always remind him of a moment in his life when he was true to his convictions.

Mr Tong might not regard his act of generosity as an exemplar. Organ donation carries risks and no one should feel pressured in any way to agree to it, without first consulting trusted relatives and friends, and independent professionals. Even if a life is at stake - the recipient of Mr Tong's liver had only a week to live as family members had failed the tests as donors - deliberation should be unhurried. However, organ donations are also possible in other ways - for example, when brain death occurs. It is encouraging to note that since 2007, less than 3 per cent of the population that comes under the Human Organ Transplant Act have opted out. From 2010 to the end of last year, about 7,000 people had opted out. Perhaps some, moved by Mr Tong's gift, may change their minds.

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