Paralysed after car crash, she turns life around

This primary school teacher's life changed in a second when her husband crashed their car - while trying to swat a housefly - nine years ago. Paralysed from the shoulder down, Madam Zhang Kaini did not give up on herself.

She raises her two young girls, trains her maids to cook and sew, uses the laptop to update Facebook and even paints for charity

SINGAPORE - A buzzing housefly changed her life.

Madam Zhang Kaini says she can remember the car accident which paralysed her from the shoulder down "vividly, like it was yesterday".

It was a Sunday morning in December nine years ago, and she and her husband, Mr Vincent Tong, were driving to have breakfast at a cafe near their Bishan home.

Annoyed by a housefly that had entered the car, Mr Tong reached out with one hand to swat it away, leaving the other on the steering wheel as he manoeuvred a turn.

But he lost control and crashed the car into a lamp post.

"We weren't going fast at all. We had just left the HDB carpark, so he was at about 40kmh at the maximum," she recalls.

She felt a sharp pain in her neck, and realised that the other parts of her body had gone numb. "I couldn't feel the rest of my body, and somehow, in that moment, I kind of knew that I might be paralysed," she says.

Her mind immediately raced to her children.

"The first thing I told my husband was to call the helper and tell her that we wouldn't be home so soon and to ask her to take care of the children," she says.

Her elder daughter was two years old then, and her younger, four months.

Madam Zhang spent the next six months at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, out of which 11/2 months were spent in the intensive care unit. She was hooked onto tubes and machines which helped her to breathe.

She also underwent two operations to realign her collarbone to her spine.

"I remember a doctor telling me that I need to be prepared, that I may have to be bedridden the rest of my life," she says.

Hope

Hope

The slim and slightly frail-looking woman says she remembers feeling distraught. "I was sad, very sad, but I still had some hope.

"The doctor said there is a slim chance I will walk again, perhaps a one per cent chance. And I thought to myself, maybe I'll get that one per cent," she says.

The six months she spent in the hospital after the accident were excruciating not only physically, but emotionally.

"After the operation, I kept trying to move my body, but couldn't. It felt heavy, like stone. I was frustrated.

"And I kept worrying about the kids," she says of her children, then two years old and four months old.

After five months in hospital, she finally got to see Isabelle and Olivia, her two young daughters. What was meant to be joyous turned out to be tainted with heartache.

"The older one could still remember me, but the younger one did not. My husband placed my then nine-month-old daughter on the bed beside me. I wanted to kiss her, but she struggled and kicked me.

"She put out her arms and wanted the maid," she says, a tinge of anguish cracking her stoic composure.

"I resolved then that I had to build up the trust again. Even though I'm not hands-on with showering her, feeding her or changing her diapers, I realised I must make her know that I'm her mother," she says.

Still, she admits that there were moments of despair and periods when she felt like giving up.

"After I returned home from the hospital, I felt like a corpse. Only my head was alive. I felt useless, ugly and unwanted," she says.

It was a far cry from the attractive, accomplished woman she used to be.

The slender and stylish Qingdao native came here from China in 1995 with some friends to see what Singapore had to offer, and if she could make a life for herself here.

Her beautiful face and love for dressing up made her a natural head-turner.

Young and ambitious

Young and ambitious

Determined to carve out a career for herself, she signed up for private night classes which trained her to pass the O levels and subsequently, A levels.

In the day, she worked as a Chinese tutor to pay for her school fees. She also met and married her Hong Kong-born husband, Mr Vincent Tong.

After passing her A-level examinations, she landed a contract teaching job at a primary school here, and was pursuing a diploma in Education at the National Institute of Education when the accident happened.

Mr Tong, who was driving the car at the time, is still racked with guilt.

"There is not a day that goes by where I don't think about that accident," he says. "Initially, I was like the walking dead. I would do anything if I could reverse the situation, or gladly take her place. It was like a knife cutting into my heart."

But Madam Zhang doesn't blame her husband of almost two decades.

"I knew in my heart that he loves me deeply and he would give up his life for me. It was just an accident," she says.

After the accident, she could do nothing on her own. She needed help even to scratch an itch.

"It was like starting from zero. I needed catheter tubes to pass urine. I needed people to feed me," she says.

For a year after leaving the hospital, she would not step out of her home.

When she finally did, she received stares from strangers, which affected her daughters.

"They asked me, 'Mummy, why do people look at us when we go out? It's very embarrassing.'

"I told them that there's nothing I am ashamed about. 'Even though I'm disabled, I try my best. You should be proud of me'," she says.

These days, mother and daughters are close.

"They save money and buy my husband and I presents for our birthdays, or on special occasions like Christmas.

"And whenever it's time to have dinner, they will ask permission before starting without me. Usually they will wait for me to start together," she says.

Looking back, it was her husband and two children who kept her going, she says.

Thoughts of giving up came but went just as quickly because she felt responsible for the children.

"I didn't want my husband to worry, and I didn't want everything I was used to in my previous life to change because of the accident."

Today

Today

Her hands break into tiny spasms in the middle of the conversation.

Without skipping a beat, she smiles warmly and explains that the spasms, a side effect of the car accident she was in nine years ago, happen occasionally.

The 38-year-old's hands are limp and useless, along with most of her body.

A once active, vibrant, vivacious woman reduced to being a prisoner in a listless body - or so you'd think.

Until you look into her eyes. Until you discover a mind that is alive, nimble and bright. You'd think that a woman whose dreams came crashing down in an instant would be consumed with bitterness, or at least be wallowing in anguish and self-pity.

But seated ramrod straight in her motorised wheelchair, Madam Zhang exudes an air of serenity and dignity.

She reveals painful details about her past with startling clarity, her sharp mind a stark contrast to her frail body.

Nine years ago, Madam Zhang was married to the love of her life and was a mother of two beautiful babies and a primary school teacher.

She enjoyed golf, went for weekly aerobic classes and was passionate about life.

Then in one moment, her life changed. She and her husband were in a car accident which left her paralysed from the shoulder down.

"Everything was going so well. We had two cars and two properties here," recalls Madam Zhang, who moved from Qingdao, China, to Singapore 17 years ago.

"It was like falling from a very high place. Everything I built up collapsed in one second," she says in fluent English, a tone of disbelief slipping into her voice.

CEO of the home

Her home - a Mount Sinai condominium unit off Holland Road - is impeccably neat. A whiff of black chicken soup fills the air, as her two maids prepare dinner.

Throughout the interview, she frequently pauses to instruct them in fluent Malay and Bahasa Indonesia that she has picked up on her own, through books and frequent conversation with them.

They cook the meals she plans, and help with everything from laundry to applying mascara on her eyelashes.

But it's clear that she is the CEO of her home.

"Every time the maids' contracts end, we get new ones and I have to train them from scratch. "I have to know what is in every cupboard of the home, and teach them how to cook, how to sew, to do everything I can't.

"I store all of the information in my laptop," she says.

Her husband, Mr Vincent Tong, an engineer in an American company, says she is the master of his house and his life.

"She knows everything in the house. I wouldn't be able to care for the kids without her," Mr Tong, 51, says.

The IT-savvy mummy keeps an e-mail account and is also active on Facebook.

To type, she grasps one end of a chopstick with her mouth, and prods the keyboard with it, letter by letter.

She created the innovative tool by wrapping a deflated balloon to the lower end of the stick, like a glove.

This increases friction and as a result, her precision.

The Mother

Her two children, Isabelle and Olivia, aged 11 and nine, were just three years and 10 months old respectively when she got discharged from hospital.

But unlike most mothers, Madam Zhang couldn't hug or cuddle her children. Yet this didn't stop her from bonding with them in her own way.

"I would put my baby on my bed and talk to her. I couldn't play physical games with my kids, but I would use my voice and their imagination to create interaction.

"I would ask them to act like a tiger, and they would do that. In turn, they would ask me to make the sound of a dog, and I would do that too," she says with a smile.

She cannot spank her children when they are naughty, but is determined not to spoil them.

"When they were younger and misbehaved, I would tell the maid to put them in the 'punishment corner', where they sat.

"After some time I would go to them, 'cuddle' them and tell them that I still love them," she says.

The Painter

Six years ago, Madam Zhang found a new sense of independence, which came with learning how to paint with her mouth.

At the beginning, she struggled with the basics of grasping the brush between her teeth and positioning herself close to the paper.

The process was especially trying as she suffers from low blood pressure, and had to cope with dizziness and fainting spells while painting.

Regular practice and persistence through the years have paid off.

Today, Madam Zhang is patience personified as she steadily dips a paintbrush (attached to a chopstick) in white paint, then in red, to get the perfect shade of pink.

With the smallest shake of her head, she forms the petal of a large rose, pauses, then brushes the canvas again to give the painting further character and dimension.

These days, she can paint for three hours at a time without stopping, with each painting taking four to 10 days to complete.

She is also a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, and regularly sells her work at public exhibitions.

Asked what advice she has to give to people with disabilities, Madam Zhang says: "Don't underestimate yourself, or think that you are useless because of your physical limitations.

"There's great inner power to unlock if you believe in yourself."

benitaay@sph.com.sg


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