Images by author.
What makes a life?
For many, it’s the momentous milestones—the ones you want captured and shared online lest you forget what dress you wore or how wide you smiled. They include the public proposal where you blubbered, “Yes!” through teary eyes; the elaborate wedding banquet with cakes and champagne; receiving the keys to your new home; the birth of your first child.
For others, life’s memorable moments are more basic. You might even call them boring.
If I were to document Mdm Lee Siew Choo’s life, these are the details that would capture its essence: a peaceful, vacant HDB void deck at 10 AM after everyone has just left for work; the scorching sun that beats down as she strolls to the hawker centre across from her estate in Bedok; a light breeze that tousles her hair outside her home on the 10th floor.
You may not bat an eyelid at these ordinary moments, but to Mdm Lee, they are the ones that count.
A few minutes before arriving at Mdm Lee’s house, I cross paths with the 62-year-old while waiting for the lift at the void deck. She’s just coming home from the market, her arms laden with grocery bags, belying the fact that barely two years ago, she couldn’t enjoy even a five-minute walk to the nearby supermarket without being rendered immobile by searing pains in her body.
The pain was caused by the breakdown of cartilage in her joints. It was also the first sign of spinal stenosis—a chronic condition that would eventually make it compulsory for her to undergo spinal surgery.
Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of any bony openings in the spine through which the spinal cord or spinal nerves travel. This causes a part of the spine to press down on the nerves around it, and in Mdm Lee’s case, this led to unbearable pain in her right leg.
Mdm Lee shares that the pain was manageable at first, hence her decision to attend physiotherapy under a doctor’s advice. But as the process of getting better became long and tedious, she realised she wasn’t seeing much improvement to her condition.
Eventually, Mdm Lee couldn’t even make it to the nearest supermarket without stopping every few minutes from the pain. Although her 26-year-old son would accompany her on these trips, she still needed to sit down every time she felt a sharp pain.
She could no longer ignore her condition. Four months before she was scheduled for spinal surgery, the pain worsened, especially when she was at work. In the days leading up to the surgery, her body would hurt before and during sleep, especially when she tossed and turned.
If you haven’t suffered excruciating and all-consuming physical pain, picture yourself getting devoured from within by a flesh-eating parasite. Every second that passes aggravates the burning, gut-wrenching sensation, as though you are literally on fire. At times, the pain gets so intense it even paralyses your mind.
Mdm Lee was unable to complete even the simplest tasks. Leaving home, appreciating good weather, and grocery shopping were all out of the question.
Getting diagnosed and returning to the unremarkable humdrum of normal life were all she could think about.
That morning, I learn that part of Mdm Lee’s ‘normal life’ involves running her own business as a seamstress. This allows her to voluntarily contribute to her CPF accounts to save for her housing, healthcare, and retirement needs just like regular employees who make and receive contributions from their salary and employers.
When Mdm Lee recalls her surgery, she tells me she “wasn’t worried”. Instead she felt calm.
In total, her spinal surgery cost around $32,000—money she would have had to withdraw from her own savings if not for the 65% government subsidy. In addition, the remaining 35% was paid for through MediShield Life and MediSave. While MediShield Life covered about $9,000, she used around $3,000 from her MediSave, and these were factored into the hospital bill by default.
The convenience of this process was a blessing. For someone in extreme pain, the last thing Mdm Lee wanted was to spend time and energy filling in forms.
In the end, she only had to fork out a few hundred dollars from her own pocket. It was fortunate that she had the foresight to save in her CPF accounts while she was working, or she would have otherwise needed to use more of her personal savings to pay the bills.
“Perhaps those who don’t save regularly might feel a lack of safety or security when faced with added expenses for unexpected illnesses,” she says.
“But it helps that I also chose the B2 hospital ward,” she adds, half-jokingly. “If I had chosen a more expensive room, the bill wouldn’t be as cheap!”
From making voluntary contributions to her CPF regularly, to settling her surgery bills with MediSave and coverage by MediShield Life, I am heartened by Mdm Lee’s accountability to her own quality of life. I can’t help wondering if her hefty surgery bill would have been a burden if she hadn’t been able to make a claim from MediShield Life and use the money from her MediSave.
After all, her family has always led a modest life. Even though her son holds a full-time job and could have contributed to her medical bills, she doesn’t believe in depending on him to pay for her and her husband’s needs.
After the surgery, Mdm Lee decided to top up $30,000 to her CPF Retirement Account because of the attractive interest rates, and to get higher monthly payouts in her retirement years.
“After I was diagnosed with my spinal disease, I realised it’s hard to predict what can happen in the future. The monthly payouts can cover my daily expenses and ensure I have an income even in unforeseen circumstances or when I am not able to work. It also helps me worry less about money when I get older,” she shares.
As part of her post-surgery rehabilitation, Mdm Lee goes for regular physiotherapy sessions to strengthen her bones. She has dipped into MediSave to pay part of this cost, because patients aged 60 and above can use up to $200 per year from their own or their spouse’s MediSave account for outpatient medical treatment.
I point out the exercise bike at the corner of her living room, and ask if she bought it after her surgery. But she laughs and tells me it was an old purchase that she became “very lazy to use”.
To complement her physiotherapy sessions, she heeds her doctor’s advice to take walks around her neighbourhood instead. The Vitamin D from the sun helps her bones to absorb calcium and grow stronger.
“I have to listen to him,” she says. “Otherwise I am responsible for my own suffering.”
As I hang around in her living room that day, Mdm Lee chatters excitedly on the phone in a dialect I can’t quite catch. Shortly after, she busies herself with her domestic helper in the kitchen, speaking in a spattering of Malay. A few minutes later, her domestic helper sets down cups of hot tea in front of us.
After hearing about her surgery, learning about her family, and even entertaining her questions about whether I’m married, I ask if I can take a few photos of Mdm Lee doing whatever she does at home.
“Aiyah, my hair is so messy after going to the market. No need to take nice photos lah. Just take what I usually do at home. Candid poses; everyday life,” she quips.
Okay, I reply. Let’s do that.
There is no sign of the medical condition Mdm Lee was plagued with two years ago, just a quiet understanding that health is wealth. As she is now aware after overcoming a disease that took over her life for a few years, physical health is a privilege that many people don’t realise they have until they’re left fighting for it.
For Mdm Lee, peace of mind also comes from knowing she has the funds to tide her through a crisis.
Health and retirement funds are not sensational milestones worth shouting about. In fact, they are downright banal. Even so, being able to savour the boring parts of life— walking to the nearby market, and enjoying the breeze from the corridor outside her home—was something she forgot how to do when she suffered from spinal stenosis.
Yet if the boring bits are the best ones, and the heart of life is good, then life’s most mundane moments are the ones that make a life.
This post is sponsored by CPF.