21 Dec 2004

Dying with grace


Dec 20, 2004

Computer programmer started blog last month on her fight against rare tumour
By Sharon De Castro

THIS is the last entry in computer programmer Grace Chow's blog: 'After a three-year battle against Death, he came to take her. She stopped breathing tonight, without pain, without suffocation or paralysis.'


Facing death bravely: Ms Chow's blog has touched the hearts of many. She died on Dec 6, three years after the tumour was discovered.

It was written by her Dutch husband, database analyst Ton de Vries, to tell those who have been following her online account of what turned out to be her last weeks, that she had died on Dec 6. Ms Chow, who was living in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, was 32 years old.

The end came three years after a rare tumour, called a chordoma, was discovered at the base of her skull. The growth, which measured about 10cm by 7cm, had fractured her skull and two vertebrae. It had made it near impossible for her to speak, as well as difficult to walk and lift her hands.

The former student of CHIJ (Toa Payoh) and Victoria Junior College did not think she would live more than a year when she was told of the growth.

But she did and went on to fulfil her dream of writing a book on love, despair, death and Singapore. The mostly autobiographical effort, A Pain In The Neck, was published in October and is available through www. amazon.com and www.book surge.com for about US$16 (S$26.50).

She started her online diary only last month, to keep in touch with family and friends when speaking became difficult. She managed only 11 entries in Dying Is, at dyingis.blogspot.com

As such records go, it was unusual, as it was about the struggle to confront death. Most blogs focus on romance, parties, and offer crazy confessions and observations of the world.

It touched the hearts of many who read it and comforted others because of the positive attitude towards life and death that it reflected, said her husband.

One anonymous reader wrote in the blog: 'Thank you Grace, for your writings and reminding us to find the strength to go on even when life seems dark.'

Her 39-year-old husband said in an e-mail message to The Straits Times: 'I still get reactions from people who read the blog: a chordoma patient who wants to set up an infosite about chordoma, an editor of Bone Cancer magazine wants to write about Grace, a woman who suffers from depression who finds comfort even in the last weeks of her own life.'

Ms Chow was born in Singapore in 1972, the second of three girls of strict parents. She left for the Netherlands at 25, after she obtained her Master of Arts in Philosophy at the National University of Singapore.

In Rotterdam, she met her husband whom she had known a few years earlier through online newsgroup alt.music.alternative

He said of what drew them to each other: 'More than half of her CDs I also had and almost all the CDs she would want to have I had already. This similar taste for music was not the only thing we shared. Also the taste for film and art, for instance. We were soulmates, as she said in her book.'

In 2001, the keen tennis player and cook collapsed in the shower. A scan revealed the growth, which had been giving her blinding headaches for a year.

She went through a series of operations to remove parts of the tumour to relieve the pressure on her skull. They left her semi- permanently in a neck brace, unable to swallow.

Food had to be pumped directly into her stomach through a tube, which she did herself.

Six days before her death, she wrote in her blog: 'I can still connect my catheter to the feeding pump, I can still walk (v. slowly) to the toilet myself, but my days of cooking/baking are clearly over.

'I will have to be the chef this week, calling the shots in the kitchen, while Ton will have to be the assistant cook, doing the actual cutting and frying.'

Her older sister, Ms Caroline Chow, 37 - who was close to her and flew to Holland to visit just before Grace began on her blog because 'I had this feeling she was slipping away' - described her as 'very brave and very human'.

The Institute of Mental Health's chief of general psychiatry, Dr Adrian Wang, said writing a blog could help the terminally ill 'ventilate their emotions'. This can be healthy, he added. 'Using a blog allowed her to reach a large number of people and there may have been a need to think that people will share and understand what you are going through.'

In her blog's introduction, Ms Chow wrote of her tumour: 'It's growing every day. Very quickly.

'On the other hand, it's changed my life in many positive ways. I found the inspiration to write a book, for which I've received many positive reactions.'

Grace, who by then had become a Dutch national, began writing the 169-page volume in 2002. Nine months and four operations later, it was finished.

Her husband said response to the book has been encouraging. 'At first friends, mainly colleagues, bought it. Many expected it to be a book purely about her illness, so they were very surprised by the contents.'

Among other things, Ms Chow wrote about her reasons for leaving Singapore - she was disheartened by the political climate here reflected in the 1997 General Election. She chose the Netherlands because it appeared to be so different from Singapore.

Senior sociology lecturer Steven McDermott, now working in Singapore and who reviewed her book, said: 'In her book and blog, I always got a sense that there was a very strong and humorous person sharing what is the most personal event in her life. Something I'd be unable to do.'

Read excerpts of Grace Chow's online diary and about the growing popularity of blogs in Digital Life tomorrow.

2 comments:

friskodude said...

That was a very moving post, Steve, and I'm glad you passed it along. I had noticed the previous post about her book, but didn't take the time to have a look, but did visit her blog and was very very touched.

lee hsien tau said...

The Institute of Mental Health's chief of general psychiatry, Dr Adrian Wang, said writing a blog could help the terminally ill 'ventilate their emotions'. This can be healthy, he added. 'Using a blog allowed her to reach a large number of people and there may have been a need to think that people will share and understand what you are going through.'

The most untrustable professions are those which dispense advice that includes the comment: 'This can be healthy'

Two such professions are shrinks and investment analysts. Grace probably had other reasons in mind. By the way, I think it's probably legal to chew grass in Holland. Could have eased that pain in her neck. That's from what somebody who got two years for chewing grass said. I've never numbed myself including what the shrinks under Dr Adrian Wang tried to dispense at his 'holiday inn'. (Those shrinks are on overseas study leave.)

The only pain-killers I've ever purposely taken are those dispensed for imflamed knee cartilage.
But I didn't take it for the pain in the knee. I took it for the pain in the back ... while it lasted. Do you really believe such crap: 'Using a blog allowed her to reach a large number of people and there may have been a need to think that people will share and understand what you are going through.'

Shrinks are a recalcitrant stinking pain in the butt. If 'writing a blog could help the terminally ill 'ventilate their emotions', then those on death-row should be given access to the internet to 'ventilate their emotions'. But that is not possible for the same reason that incoming and outgoing prison mail is vetted. That is, if you ever managed to get your hands on the paper and pen and time to write it with. So it is heaven-sent when somebody manages to smuggle a pen into the cell you're in (if that wasn't staged) ......

Grace was dead meat whether or not she chose to blog. How can that possibly be healthy? If ever there is the possibility of a genie in a bottle granting me three wishes, I'd waste two of them on wishing someone gets the same recalcitrant pain in the neck and to hear him say 'This can be healthy'. If God ever gave Adolf Hitler a second crack at life, I'd aquaint him with a more deserving bunch of assholes in charge of a certain 'holiday inn' in desperate need of being made to strip and introduced to his gas chambers. I'd love to hear them scream for ventilation?