She thought they were going to Mount Alvernia’s Critical Care Unit (CCU) to say hello to the staff who had taken good care of her when she was seriously ill two years ago. But he suggested that they visit the Chapel first.
And it was a visit that Ms May Lai would never forget for the rest of her life. For, when the doors to the Chapel were flung open, there were familiar faces waiting for her - and before she knew it, boyfriend Koh Jia Xiang was at the mike serenading Alex To’s love ballad, “Marry Me”.
With a diamond ring in hand, he then went down on his knees to propose to her – watched by his fellow co-conspirators, which included their close friends and hospital staff.
“I could not stop bawling. In fact, I was already crying when the doors were thrown open and I saw that he had planned a surprise with our friends. Only when I realised what song he was singing did it dawn on me that it was a proposal,” Ms Lai, 26, told My Alvernia in an email interview.
Mr Koh, 27, who took some nine months to prepare the surprise proposal, said, “Everything went smoothly albeit with a bit of hiccups because I was taken aback by her reaction.”
Of course, Ms Lai said “yes” and the couple – both national archers and incidentally, both Mount Alvernia babies - are now planning for the next big step: their wedding.
For the pair, that memorable day in the Chapel on July 24 marked a high point in a relationship that began in university and went through a big test two years ago when a sudden illness left Ms Lai in a medically induced coma – and Mr Koh uncertain whether he would ever get to see her hale and hearty again.
“I was diagnosed with mycoplasma pneumonia then. It was very sudden and unexpected. In fact, I was feeling perfectly fine and was still working out in the gym days before I fell sick,” recalled Ms Lai.
Mycoplasma pneumonia is a common respiratory lung infection. Its symptoms include fever and cough, sore throat, tiredness and headache. (See box story)
“Jia Xiang had taken me to the clinic which, in turn, referred me to Mount Alvernia for a check-up as my blood pressure had plummeted and I nearly fainted three times in five minutes. The very next morning in Mount Alvernia, I fell into fits and that was the last thing I could remember before I woke up nearly two weeks later,” said Ms Lai, who was admitted to the hospital on Sept 27, 2007.
“Mycoplasma pneumonia is not deadly in most cases,” said Dr Jane Yap, who handled Ms Lai’s case. “However, in May’s situation, her illness took a turn for the worse because the infection triggered other problems, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, septicaemic shock and multiple organ failure,” said Dr Yap, a respiratory and internal medicine physician, from Jane Yap Chest & Medical Clinic at Mount Alvernia.
“Ms Lai’s condition was so serious that at one stage, she was estimated to have less than a 30-per-cent chance of recovery,” added Dr Yap.
His girlfriend’s sudden illness had a profound impact on Mr Koh, an engineer with the Defence, Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).
“It was really a traumatic experience for me to see her slowly withering away, even though she made a full recovery in the end. Even today, I will tear whenever I think about it,” said the man who made the hospital his second home as Ms Lai laid in a coma. He would return home only to have a bath and a change of clothes.
During those two anxiety-filled weeks, Mr Koh spent “many sleepless nights” at the hospital – mainly in the CCU waiting area, sometimes at the Chapel.
“It was at the Chapel that I prayed for her to come back to me, for that second chance to spend more time with her and to build a family with her.”
He also had “many engaging conversations” with the hospital staff. “They did help in strengthening my faith that May would recover and that we would be able to take the next step in our lives,” said Mr Koh.
Ms Lai finally regained consciousness after two weeks and she was subsequently shifted to a general ward, where she was to stay for another three weeks before she could be discharged.
“I learnt from my family and Jia Xiang that there were several complications during the time I was unconscious - I went into septic shock and my kidneys and liver ‘shut down’ due to persistent low blood pressure” said Ms Lai, a senior associate in a trustee services firm.
“Due to the temporary renal failure, Ms Lai had to undergo haemodialysis to rid her body of its waste products. Antibiotics were used to reduce inflammation and she also had to be on respiratory support,” said Dr Yap, who remembers Ms Lai as a “very cooperative patient”.
The young couple, who were already contemplating marriage before the illness struck, learnt to value each other more after the ordeal.
LESSONS IN LOVE
For Mr Koh, it meant treasuring the relationship with all his loved ones, especially Ms Lai, even more.
“I never thought that I had taken her for granted. However, when I nearly lost her, I realised that I had spent so much time pursuing my dreams that I neglected the loved ones around me. Not many people in the world get this kind of second chance. Hence, I decided to just focus on my career and building a family with her,” said Mr Koh, who gave up competitive archery to spend more time with Ms Lai and his family.
As for Ms Lai, she might not have been aware of her surroundings during those two weeks in a coma – but she found out later that Mr Koh had been spending every night sleeping on the armchair next to her bed.
“He went through a lot,” she said of her boyfriend of five years.
She recalled that Mr Koh would try to put up a cheerful front whenever he popped into her hospital room. “But I could tell behind the mask that he was worried sick since I had some complications or problems arising one after another. It made me all the more determined to recover as soon as I could so as to put my loved ones’ hearts at ease,” Ms Lai said.
Apart from the care she received from Mr Koh and her family, Ms Lai was also thankful for the support she received from the hospital staff, especially Dr Yap.
“She was extremely caring and I could feel her warmth as she asked me how I was feeling each time she visited. I couldn’t sleep at night when I was in the CCU and used to look forward to her morning rounds. And I remember her pretty cheongsams - I was marvelling to myself that she had a different cheongsam everyday!” said Ms Lai, who has now been given a clean bill of health.
And while she may not be able to remember the names of all the CCU nurses, she certainly remembers their faces. In fact, she was the one who had suggested to Mr Koh that they should pay a visit to Mount Alvernia and drop by at the CCU unit - which gave him the perfect excuse to lure her to the hospital chapel on that fateful day without making her suspicious!
As the happy couple firm up their nuptial plans, Mr Koh hopes to feature the hospital as the backdrop for some of their wedding photos.
So, will they have their children at Mount Alvernia too?
“Yes! Definitely! Apart from the fact that both of us were born in Mount Alvernia, I just can’t stress enough how wonderful the staff are in Mount Alvernia. I want my wife and babies to be in safe hands,” said Mr Koh.