Singapore

From suffering to serenity

Pain was Ms Maria Lee Kwai How's constant companion. TNP featured her in a heartrending front-page plea for love, in one of our many stories of extraordinary people

SUFFERING IN SILENCE: Madam Lee

For most of her life, Ms Maria Lee Kwai How knew only pain.

Like the physical pain of suffering from acute neurofibromatosis, a disfiguring and incurable non-infectious genetic disorder.

Commonly known as Elephant Man's disease, it causes skin tissues to grow out of control.

Ms Lee was shunned by society. It's perhaps not hard to understand why.

Lumps of spongy flesh of various sizes ravaged her entire body, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, making her look much bigger than her petite 1.5m frame.

Those on her hands were so big that whenever she raised them, it was like lifting weights.

Her eyelids, heavy with tissue, almost hid her eyes and her mouth could only be seen when she opened it to eat or talk.

Her nostrils were nearly blocked by the growths, which made breathing and speaking difficult.

Ms Lee died peacefully in her sleep in September 1994. The official cause of death was bronchopneumonia.

She was 73.

The New Paper learnt of her plight in 1992, when her story first appeared in an issue of local community service organisation Lions Club Of Singapore's magazine, Roar.

The fragile old lady's purgatory of loneliness and seclusion was further highlighted in TNP in a heartrending front-page plea for love and acceptance.

Many readers were moved by her tragic story and contacted TNP, offering friendship and financial help.

She was normal at birth, but when she turned 18 the disease first appeared. At that time, she lived with her mother - who was from China - in a one-room flat in Chinatown.

She hardly ventured out of her home, but whenever she did, it would be under the cover of a long-sleeved hooded robe.

TURNING POINT

When her mother died, she moved to a one-room flat in York Hill in 1975 and was looked after by an elderly man, Mr Khun Sook. They both lived on social welfare assistance.

The turning point came in 1990, the year Mr Khun Sook died.

Even though she became helpless and alone, she refused to be put in an old folks home as most of its facilities are communal.

Eventually, nuns from local Catholic charity home Little Sisters Of The Poor took Ms Lee in, and she spent her remaining years there till her death in 1994. During this time, she became more open and relaxed.

Although Ms Lee's features were barely distinguishable, everyone who knew her remembered her smile - as well as the cheerful, friendly soul.

One of them was Madam Yvonne Yuen, a Lions Club Of Singapore (City) member and one of the volunteers who cared for Ms Lee and visited her at least once a week.

The 60-year-old recalled to TNP in March 2013: "Maria's case is definitely the worst I've seen (in terms of skin diseases). She never really talked about her condition because there was nothing to say about it...

"We never heard her whine or complain about her condition. She really took it in her stride."

About 300 people attended Ms Lee's funeral, held at the Church of St Bernadette, after which her body was cremated.

Of her passing, Madam Yuen said: "In her final days, (the area around) her eyes got really droopy - to the extent where we couldn't see her eyes any more. A few of her lumps even burst and we had to nurse and help dress her.

"But even when she was sick, she would always try to speak to us. She always felt blessed and thankful for the help and the friends that she had."