For as long as she can remember, Mabel Tan, now a 37-year-old financial services director, had always envisioned herself becoming a mother someday. She loves children and recalls always wanting to help out when her mother was babysitting her younger cousins. She just never imagined facing so many obstacles and setbacks along the way, including two miscarriages, not to mention having a baby with Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return, TAPVR for short.
“I met my soulmate, James Yang, at university and we tied the knot a year after graduation. Friends asked why I would marry so early; I was only 23 and he, 25. But we knew we were ready to commit to building a future — and a family — together.
After two miscarriages, my third pregnancy was a worrisome one. Still struggling with the emotional scars of my earlier losses, I was constantly in fear of miscarrying again. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy, but I am blessed with a supportive family and church community. With their encouragement, I managed to carry Nicolette to full term and delivered a healthy baby after 13 hours of labour. We were overjoyed.
Along Came Gabriel
Two years later, I was about to deliver my second child. Feeling rather like an ‘experienced’ mum this time, James and I were pretty chill about my upcoming delivery. After an 11-hour labour, I gave birth to a boy, Gabriel.
I was looking forward to that joyous moment with my husband and parents meeting him for the first time. However, the nurses didn’t wheel the baby in from the nursery. They said that the doctors needed to do more checks on him.
An hour later, the doctors informed us that my son’s oxygen level was much lower than a normal baby’s. They needed specialists to examine him. There was nothing I could do but pray that all would be fine. When the doctors diagnosed Gabriel with a congenital heart condition known as TAPVR, my world shattered.
TAPVR is a rare congenital malformation in which all four pulmonary veins do not connect normally to the left atrium. The veins drain abnormally to the right atrium (right upper chamber) by way of an abnormal (anomalous) connection.
My pregnancy had been a smooth one, so it truly came as a complete shock. Nothing was amiss throughout my pregnancy journey; everything seemed normal, and the scans and prenatal checks were all fine.
Braving All Odds
At 8pm, just three hours post-delivery, we were discussing with three specialists — a cardiologist, a paediatrician, and a pulmonologist — on the next best course of action. The doctors shared that Gabriel’s medical condition is very rare. He was then only the seventh patient with TAPVR in Singapore’s history. His odds of survival were 50/50 and to even have a fighting chance, he needed open-heart surgery now.
After learning about the cost estimates at both private and public hospitals, we were concerned if we could afford it. To help us better manage, Gabriel’s surgery would be done at National University Hospital (NUH).
As a mother, you will somehow find supernatural strength when it comes to taking care of your child.
I requested to be discharged early so that I could be there with him the next morning. I didn’t do much postpartum recovery and confinement either. All that mattered was whether my son would be okay, if he would recover well after a seven-hour surgery.
As Christians, James and I believe that Gabriel will live up to his name, which means ‘God is my strength’. That day, we declared his condition only temporary, and that he would live to see many good days ahead. Thankfully, the surgery was a success — nothing short of a miracle. And he was discharged from NICU just two weeks later, a record-breaker in the hospital!
Learning that Gabriel has a very rare medical condition with no immediate cure were the darkest hours of my life. I would have struggled a lot more if not for my ‘village’. My parents took care of our two-year-old daughter, so we could wholly focus our attention on Gabriel. Our church leaders and members also prayed and sent encouraging messages. We’re really blessed to have so many people cheering for him.
Living with TAPVR
The doctors had explained at the outset that Gabriel would require lifelong treatment. As such, we are ready to accept future developments and provide whatever we can for his continual treatment. The doctors also prepared us to expect hindered growth development and other possible health conditions at a later age.
After that first open-heart surgery, Gabriel seemed to be doing fine. He was growing well, though he was smaller in build than most children his age. Until during one of his reviews a year later, when a CT scan showed that his left lung was shrinking. He needed another surgery, or it would fail.
But to complicate things, we had to get his weight up to 10 kg first, because each surgery would cause him to lose about 10 to 20 per cent of his current weight. Furthermore, we were anxious about the surgical outcome, as the surgeon highlighted that scar tissue on the lung might result in future complications. However, at 18 months, Gabriel responded well to the surgery, and again had a remarkable recovery.
My little fighter will be seven years old next month. To date, he has overcome two major surgeries and six minor day surgeries. He will need to continue his medical follow-ups for life. As his mum, my hope for him is to always be strong and stay positive.
(See also: When Your Child is in Hospital)
Gabriel Goes to School!
During Gabriel’s enrolment, James and I informed the school of his medical condition. This ensures teachers are aware of his limitations for physical activity and can alert us immediately if he appears unwell. They also understand when Gabriel has to miss lessons to go for his mandatory check-ups. We are thankful that the school has been a good support pillar, with teachers who update us on his condition.
Gabriel enjoys school and has been adapting well. He even shares the experiences of his visits to the doctors with teachers and classmates, which tells me he is a courageous and happy-go-lucky child. As Nicolette attends the same school, it helps that she can also look out for him whenever possible.
My children are like chalk and cheese. Nicolette is the feisty one and even though she does quarrel with Gabriel (as siblings do), she dotes on him. If Gabriel is fearful of something, she tries to calm him down, encouraging and teaching him new things, and even coaches him in his homework. It makes me so proud to see it.
When, out of the blue, the siblings told us that they don’t want us to work so hard all our lives, that they will do their best to provide for us in future — James and I could not be more touched. Yet knowing Gabriel will need lifelong treatment, we must be prudent to ensure we will always be able to afford his medical bills.
Finding Purpose through Adversity
Looking back, I am so thankful that the government introduced Medishield Life to cover pre-existing conditions for Singaporeans. Also, that I had maternity insurance to cushion the impact of unforeseen medical costs.
After Gabriel came along, I made a career switch into financial advisory. For one thing, juggling his post-surgery recovery while caring for a toddler and managing my own career was impossible. I needed a job which gave me the flexibility to care for my children.
It also felt like a call for me to share my story with parents and parents-to-be. I can’t emphasise enough the need to be adequately insured and to start holistic financial planning as early as possible. Adding on financial stress to parents facing their children’s medical crises is something that can be avoided. My career at Great Eastern lets me balance work and family time, while enabling me to help others with their financial planning.
Motherhood is a Fine Art
Before becoming a mum, I thought motherhood meant taking care of my children’s needs and ensuring they grow up well. Now I know it’s much more than that. It’s about raising a new generation with the right values such as compassion for others, building mental tenacity and resilience in them, while also teaching them to enjoy the simple joys in life.
The early years with Nicolette were no less challenging ones. Not just because I was a first-time mum, but also because we discovered she is a gifted child. James and I had to learn and relearn how to raise our daughter — she views things differently from her peers. But in doing so, our parenting journey has been much more enjoyable and fulfilling as well.
(See also: How to Support Your Gifted Children in Singapore)
Motherhood is a fine art and it is not an easy journey as every child is different. But I am thankful to be a mum to two lovely children and very involved in their lives every day. Whenever I face adversities, I think of my son, Gabriel who has overcome so much at such a young age. He is one of the most optimistic and happy individuals that I know.”