Zi Heng: The man who overcame

If anyone has the right to complain about life, it would be Zi Heng. The fit young lad was only 22 years of age when a diving accident robbed him of his mobility and independence.

Instead, he chooses to be happy.

The accident

It was 3 August 2013 and Zi Heng was at Palawan beach attending the last day of Science Orientation Camp as a camp senior. He was having fun with his friends and decided to dive from the shore into the sea.

As soon as he hit the water, Zi Heng knew something was wrong.

“There was no pain or impact but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t feel my body; just a sense of emptiness.”

He felt himself sinking deeper, unable to get out of the water. A former lifeguard, he kept calm and tried to ration whatever breath he had left.

Just as he was running out of air, one of his friends pulled him out of the water. He was rushed to Singapore General Hospital where surgeons operated on his spine, which had a fractured C6 vertebra. Zi Heng was told the operation was successful and he would recover and walk again in one or two years.

Zi Heng with his friends who visited him while he was in the hospital from August 2013 to late January 2014. (Photo/Wong Zi Heng)

For the next month in SGH, Zi Heng held on to the hope of recovery. His friends kept his spirits up by visiting every day.

The road to recovery

But despite weeks of rehabilitation, Zi Heng saw little improvement in his physical movements.

Zi Heng a couple of months after the accident. (Photo/Wong Zi Heng)

Full recovery was not meant to be.

A fracture in his C6 vertebrae meant that he could not move his fingers, body and legs. He also lost the dignity of having bladder and bowel control. The accident left him completely dependent on others for mobility.

“I was assuming that I would recover. The hope got smaller but it is still there. Instead, I became realistic. I didn’t want to wait around for a miracle to happen but to work on what I could do independently.”

Zi Heng began rehabilitation after he was discharged in late January this year. “My therapy doesn’t focus on what you can’t move. Instead, it helps you derive functional tasks from muscles that can move.”

It took enormous effort to carry on and sometime between February and March, Zi Heng finally broke down, crushed by the weight of his disappointment.

Zi Heng was at rehab, putting in a lot of effort but he just couldn’t get his body to move the way he wanted.

Zi Heng learning how to lie down from a sitting up position. (Video/Wong Zi Heng)

“The therapist asked me, ‘Why, no strength ah?’ I was someone who was so well and fit. Things suddenly changed. I’m weak and can’t do many things. I cried when I thought about the future. But by the same night, I was alright. I moved on.”

Zi Heng says he has hardly felt anger or bitterness. Nor has he ever wondered why his life turned out this way. He finds it pointless.

“Some people say ‘things happen for a reason’ but I don’t even need to know that reason. Regardless of what reason it is, things have already happened and I’d rather focus on how to move on. Focusing on the ‘why’ is just wasting your life.”

Zi Heng says one of his biggest motivations is watching videos his therapists show him. These videos show him that it is possible for people with his injury to perform functional tasks. “When they show videos of how it’s done and that it’s possible, I don’t see a reason for giving up. If you give up, you’ll never achieve anything. But if you keep trying, your chance of achieving is not zero.”

Zi Heng with his friends from school. (Photo/Wong Zi Heng)

Another motivation is the unwavering support he gets from friends and family.

Zi Heng’s family has been caring for him after his injury. His friends include him in their outings and make special effort — meeting him earlier to fetch him to and fro — to accommodate his needs.

“If I am sad, I feel like I’m letting them down. I want to express my thanks by living my life strongly to show them that I’m worth their care and concern.”

The teacher

Back in his NS days when he served as an Airforce Air Warfare officer, Zi Heng spent time talking to his men and trying to inspire them for life. He said, “I feel that in this situation, I need to put what I used to say to my men into practice. I need to lead by example. Only then will people respect you and believe what you say.”

Zi Heng smiling for the camera outside his hall room at the College of Alice and Peter Tan, NUS. He returned to school in August this year after taking a year off to recover.
(Photo/Cassandra Eng)

Today, as a prospective teacher, Zi Heng lives up to the same principle. A recipient of the MOE Teaching Award, he wants to teach his students the meaning of grit and resilience, and remind them that a successful life is not always smooth or easy. There will be obstacles.

He said, “Through obstacles, you grow. Don’t siam all the difficulties; they are opportunities to grow and to become better. If you dodge them, you’re shortchanging yourself.”

He hopes that as a teacher, he will be able to help students achieve their dreams, whatever they may be.

The inspiration

Ironically, before his accident, Zi Heng had struggled with feeling replaceable. “Without me, my friends and family can still go on living,” he said.

But after his injury, Zi Heng found a purpose — sharing the hard-won lessons he learnt in rebuilding his life, with the public on Facebook.

Updating his Facebook requires Zi Heng to type with the sides of his thumbs and that takes a lot of effort and time because after the accident, Zi Heng cannot move his fingers.

But he said, “If it can help even one person or two people, why not?”

He added that many Singaporeans complain about life and focus on the bad things. “They forget the good things, like being able-bodied. They always say ‘life sucks’ but they don’t know how lucky it is to live a life.”

“I hope they see life differently. You only live one conscious life. It makes sense to make the best out of it and not dwell in negativity. I want to know I’ve lived a life without regret. When something happens, one has a choice to be happy or sad, and have control how you feel. Every single day, you can choose. I want to be dwelling in happiness because there is nothing to gain from being sad.”

This article was first published on ConnexionSG.