Stroke at 24: A Young Doctor’s Belief That Disability Is Only In The Mind
At 24 years old and on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a neurosurgeon, Dr Darren Chua suffered a stroke that almost took his life. It left him half paralyzed, severely impacting his ability to see, read and write, shattering his dreams instantly.
While his doctors were not optimistic, Dr Darren refused to be a burden to his family and loved ones, fighting on with the deep belief that he could still contribute to society in some way.
He has since gone on to establish Potter’s Clay Education, an innovative learning centre determined to help students maximize their academic potential, with his efforts being recognized when he received both the Successful Entrepreneur Award and Outstanding Young Singaporean awards in 2011.
He is also a motivational speaker spreading an impactful message about the art of determination in overcoming adversity and a ASEAN Para Games medalist in table tennis. Dr Darren is a living testament to the message he spreads — that disability is only in the mind.
Vincent (V): Tell us more about yourself, your story and what you stand for
Dr. Darren (D): In year 2000, at the age of 24, I thought I had life all figured out. I had just graduated from the National University of Singapore’s Medical School and was about to embark on my lifelong dream of becoming a neurosurgeon. The privilege and opportunity to be part of a surgery team and to help patients through surgery was something I was very fond of.
Then on 28th April 2000, I suffered a stroke and everything I knew was stripped away. I lost the ability to talk, walk and half of my visual field. I had to come to terms that I could no longer practice as a doctor while adapting to my new physical reality of compromised vision and movement.
I spent 3 years in rehabilitation, trying to regain my ability to walk. It was small steps — from getting rid of my wheelchair, then my walking stick and then just being able to walk normally.
Being able to communicate meaningfully with other people took me 2 years. Even now, I cannot converse very well in Mandarin and I used to get A1 for Chinese Language in the O Levels!
I thought I could still contribute to healthcare as an administrator but it was very different from being a doctor. As a doctor, I could add value and interact with people, which I really enjoyed. I couldn’t do that as an administrator and as a result, I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing. After 2 years in the job, I decided to go back to school to pursue a Masters in Science at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine where I was awarded a research scholarship.
It worked through my slow writing and reading pace to eventually complete the program. It was also during the program that I had some space to look through my vision, values and what I really wanted to do with my life. During my studies, I realized that all I wanted to do was to add value and give back to people. That’s when I decided to start Potter’s Clay Education, a learning centre to tutor Secondary School youths in English, Math and Science.
I also started doing inspirational talks in 2009. I strongly believe that disability is only in the mind and that ultimately, if your mind can conceive it, you can do it, regardless of any physical handicaps or limitations you may have. Since then, I have been very fortunate to have opportunities to speak to corporations and schools.
V: Being a doctor was your lifelong dream and you worked years to realise that dream. When the stroke happened and disrupted all your plans, could you share with us what that experience was like?
D: I had temporary amnesia and couldn’t remember exactly what happened that fateful day but I remember feeling quite glad that I was still alive when I woke up in the hospital. However, seeing my medical school friends embarking on their houseman duties and becoming doctors really hurt.
Just one month ago, I had just graduated and was so excited to become a doctor. All that got taken away in just one day. It was also then I decided to make a strong determination to get back what I lost and that started my journey as a stroke survivor.
V: What gives you that drive to continue?
D: Even though I had a stroke, I still believed that I am a person of value, that I can still give back to the people I care about. For the first few years after my stroke, my main focus was to get my body back to a state where I could work and that goal kept me going during my rehab process.
Change happens one step at a time. Just because I couldn’t move doesn’t mean I couldn’t move forever or cannot do anything forever. I wanted to see what my body could do beyond the paralysis.
Doing the Masters program was a way to prove to myself that despite the stroke, I can still achieve what I want to achieve as long as I am intentional in setting my goals. My mission was to prove to myself and others that disability is in the mind.
During a chance meeting at a hawker centre, Dr. William Tan, multiple gold-medallist at The Asian Para Games, introduced me to table tennis. I was never a sporty person and would always try to avoid Physical Education classes back in school because I didn’t like to sweat.
However, I saw it as another chance to prove to myself that I could still do anything I wanted to despite my physical disability. I committed to the practice as part of my ongoing rehabilitation, and today I am proud to say I am an ASEAN Para Games medalist and ongoing competitor.
V: Were there days when you felt the opposite?
D: Many of us set goals and I did the same during my rehab. There were days when I met those goals but there were also days when I did not. Obstacles come to us in life all the time. It’s a matter of learning how to manage our expectations. Just because we are unable to hit certain goals, it doesn’t mean our entire vision is thrown away. We plan and get better by learning from these obstacles.
V: Would you say that having a goal / something to aim at helped a lot?
D: Definitely. I speak to many people with disabilities, both physical and mental and I always share with them that the most important thing is to plan. If you have a plan, you know exactly what to do now.
Sometimes, we allow fears and obstacles to stop us and we see them as insurmountable. As long as you can break your goals down into small chunks, the more likely we are able to plan and find ways to overcome the obstacles so I think that the first step to overcoming any difficulty is to plan
V: If you were to use your own rehab as an example, how did you set your goals and plan so that you manage your expectations?
D: I split my goals into short term, mid term and long term goals. Before I was told I couldn’t practice, my long term goal was to get back to work as a doctor. In order to get to that, I had to set short term goals starting from basic things like reading a certain number of words, taking a number of steps or doing a certain number of squats per day to get my body back in shape with the vision of becoming a doctor again.
V: What are some common obstacles faced by other stroke survivors?
D: Everyone wants to be well again but they don’t really take the time to plan out a step by step action plan as to how to get their health back. Most of us know the outcome but nobody wants to take the time to plan out exactly how to achieve the result.
V: Why is this the case?
D: I think a lot of times we allow fear to get the better of us because once fear sets in, our ability to rationalize stops, especially for people with physical impairments or certain traumatic situations in life.
We start to neglect our plan and when we don’t achieve our goals, we say that it cannot be done. The key is really in breaking down our goals into smaller chunks. Even if you don’t reach it, at least you have planned it. We can always plan again if we don’t reach our goals. The minute we plan, we can move one step forward and all these small steps add up. Success is a culmination of many small steps.
V: Did fear ever come into the picture for you?
D: Fear is very real and normal. It is also irrational. Does having a stroke mean I cannot be who I want to be? Is that really true or is it dependent on what I do afterwards?
When I realized that, I decided to be very intentional in putting fear aside and focusing on my plan. The key thing is to write down your plan so that when fear sets in, and it will, you have something practical to remind yourself of your original vision and stick to your plan.
This is why in my first book, The Art of Determination, I say the art of determination is really about setting goals, sticking to it, and not letting fear overcome your intentions.
Also, there is a whole host of evidence to suggest that the difference between happy and unhappy people is progress tracking. People who track their progress towards a goal experience more feelings of happiness than those who don’t!
For me, it was writing down how many squats I did for a particular day, how many words I read or how many steps I took. By doing this, I could concretely see how every small thing I am doing today helps to contribute to my larger goal in the future.
V: You were told that you couldn’t practice medicine, how did you gradually come to acceptance and let go of a lifelong dream? (Especially when letting go can be the hardest thing to do)
Initially, I was dead set on being a doctor and nothing else but this fixed mindset was causing me a lot of pain. Ultimately I realized that medicine, however noble, is still a profession, just like a lawyer, an accountant and so on. I am not defined by my job or my skills but by what I can contribute to those around me.
If you look at people who are of significance around the world, they are not defined by their jobs but by the value they add for people and communities they are a part of. I realized that even though I couldn’t be a doctor, I could still add value to the people around me.
If adding value was the key thing, then it was just a matter of looking at my talents, my inclinations and my gifts, all the things that make me who I am, and explore how I can still give back to society in other ways besides being a doctor.
That was how I came to start my business and becoming a motivational speaker to inspire others going through similar struggles. It was a lot of internal questioning at really asking myself: what is my purpose in life?
I think that when we are able to see and find that in our lives, we can begin to experience true fulfillment.
V: You had to start from scratch, with no idea what to do with your life. Could you share with us how you felt during that time? Did that affect your self esteem and what lifted you out of those dark times?
My faith helped a lot during this period of questioning because it gave me the knowledge that even though I had a stroke, I am still a son of God and God is with me. My future is still bright because God is protecting me so the question was how do I take control of my own destiny. Thankfully, I never came to the space where I felt useless or that I was a good for nothing, so I’m very grateful for that.
V: What would you say to someone who’s a high achiever, got all the good grades and suddenly for the first time in their life, they experience a massive failure?
Like I said, we are not defined by what happens to us. We are defined by what we do in the future after a crisis hits. As human beings, we have the creativity and fortitude to make things that are bad become good and I think that is what differentiates us from animals. The key is having the correct mindset.
As Viktor Frankl said in his timeless book Man’s Search for Meaning that details his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
This is, as Jack Canfield calls it, the basic formula that puts one in control of one’s success. Event + Reaction = Outcome. It is our reaction to events that we sometimes cannot control that determines our outcome.
V: What is your greatest source of happiness?
D: My family — my wife and kid (5 years old). When you have a family, you start to be more mindful about the fact that our lives are not just about us but the people around us. Even in my late twenties, it was always about me, myself and I.
As I got older and experienced more things in life, I realized that ultimately, it’s really about how we can lift each other up as a society rather than just focusing on myself. That realization has brought me much happiness.
I also draw a lot of happiness from my faith (Christianity) and my church. God is with me so in tough situations, I recognize that these situations are seasonal and will pass, just like how the four seasons change each year.I had faith that whatever happened, God will always help me to pull through.
V: How do you see your mission unfolding?
D: Ultimately, how it unfolds is God’s intention but what I do know is that my plans are to do more speaking, keynote talks and workshops. The key theme I want to share is that disability is only in the mind, that mentality trumps ability and of course, the art of determination. Those are the things that drive me.
A lot of our success is determinant on how we master our mind and our perception of how the world unfolds. Do we see a glass as half empty or half full? To me, only one person can define success and that person is you.
If you score 49 out of 100 on a test but you are the top scorer in your class, are you a success? If you compare yourself to the people around you then maybe you are a success but if you measure yourself against what you are capable of then maybe you are not.
Ultimately, our success is defined by who we benchmark ourselves against. The best way to gauge your success is to benchmark yourself against your own internal compass so that it is never wavering depending on the people around you. Each one of us has a different purpose in life that defines us. The key is to compare yourself against what you are capable of doing, not against the people around you.
When you do that, you realize that joy and happiness becomes a bit easier. Life is not about racing against others but fulfilling our individual purpose. When we race against ourselves, fulfillment becomes easier and life becomes more meaningful because it’s no longer us against the world. Instead, it becomes how can I impact those around me?
V: What is one piece of advice you would like to leave our readers with?
D: That success is really your own pursuit and nobody can rob you of your success, except yourself.The best way to keep yourself driven is to seek out your passion and purpose in life and the best way to do this is to seek out what talents, skills or inclinations God has blessed you with.
If God doesn’t make a mistake, then whatever gifts you have is his intention for you to be successful in that gift he has blessed you with. Run the race as faithfully to these gifts as you can.