Monday, December 13, 2010

A model life

Leonard Chua: A model life

By Joleen Lunjew
Pictures by LEONARD CHUA & CHUA KOK HWA/The Star

Despite having his dreams dashed while in the prime of his life, Leonard Chua has come back stronger and is helping others to do the same.

Leonard Chua was the type of guy you loved to hate. He had everything a man in his prime dreamt off — good looks, great body and the glamorous life of a model. In fact, he was about to seal a RM5mil deal when he wrapped his car around a tree along the Federal Highway in October 2005. He was only 24.

“The accident took away everything,” says Chua, who fractured his neck and lower ribs, broke his right leg, crushed his left ankle and injured his bladder. He spent five months in the hospital, 1½ months of it in ICU where his heart stopped twice, the first time for 10 minutes.

The first five months was a living nightmare. In the first two months, Chua, who is paralysed from his upper chest down, couldn’t remember anything or anyone except for his immediate family. Besides the terrible pain, he had all sorts of lung infections and his legs and head developed bedsores. Suicidal thoughts played in his mind.

“Many times I wanted to pull out my respirator and end my suffering but the thought that I hadn’t fully done my duty as a son kept me alive. My parents were there for me, washing, feeding and taking care of me. They slept on my hospital room floor for the entire five months.

“I wondered if I would have done the same if it was my own son. Their unconditional love gave me determination to recover. I had to live and walk again, to thank everybody who had shed tears and cared for me. Oh, and I haven’t made my millions yet,” he jokes.

Chua may make light of his plight now but they were dark times. The cardiac arrest caused hypoxia and brain injury affected his speech. “I could only slur and make unintelligible sounds. It was very frustrating because I knew what I wanted to say in my mind but it wouldn’t come out in words. I could hear people laughing at me when I talked, which hurt,” he recalls.

Determined to speak properly again, Chua embarked on his own speech therapy. “I read aloud and spoke to the mirror every day. To cheer myself up, I told my reflection that I was lucky God didn’t take away my handsome face. At least I still had that,” he smiles.

Chua’s hard work paid off. He now speaks like any other person. He has been asked to emcee a charity event and has been invited to several talks to share his story. “Everyone said I did a good job as an emcee but they didn’t realise how much work I had to put in just to string a sentence together. The audiences at the Prudential talk rated me nine out of 10 and booked me for next year’s talk in June with a larger audience. That made me very proud and happy. I’ve always wanted to become a motivational speaker,” Chua says.
The extent of his injuries was such that doctors told him he was lucky to be able to move his hands for he wasn’t expected to have normal hand function.

“I couldn’t operate my handphone, much less write. I couldn’t even bring my arm up to press the lift button. I had to start from below zero, learning how to draw circles and straight lines before relearning my ABCs. I even forgot my signature and had to relearn it, only to forget it two days later. This continued for a year, which made me a very patient man. Today, I sign many cheques for my company and have fully regained all my hand functions,” he says.

Chua is so thankful of his progress that he visits SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) patients to share his story with them every time he goes to University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) for follow-ups. He remembers an encounter which he holds dear to his heart.

The patient was Alex, a 20-year-old paralysed from his neck down. Alex had been bedridden for three months and was breathing through a respirator because his diaphragm had stopped functioning.
“Alex couldn’t talk, move or do anything by himself. All he could do was stare at a picture of Jesus pasted on his wall. I shared my story with him and showed him what I was capable of doing today. I taught him some qigong breathing exercises and told him not to give up.

Two weeks later, when Chua was at the hospital gym doing physio, he heard that Alex was now able to breathe on his own and sit in a wheelchair. He immediately rushed to the ICU to see him. “Everybody was happy and excited for him. Alex could talk now. He turned to me and said, ‘Thank you, Leonard. If you did not visit me two weeks ago, I would still be lying down. I will never forget you, Leonard Chua.’ That was really the best moment of my life. That was when I knew I was here to make a difference. Alex gave me the inspiration to help others,” Chua explains.

Chua’s rehabilitation regimen includes working on his abdominal muscles.

Chua reckons everybody’s injury is different. If someone hasn’t recovered from the same injuries that you have, that doesn’t mean that you too will not recover. He says his doctors did not dare promise or confirm anything as spinal cord injuries are very complicated — incurable by medicine. Progress is usually determined by the patient’s will power to want to heal.

“Doctors told me of another man who suffered the same injuries but unlike me, he is still bedridden, not being able to eat or speak. I am very thankful to be where I am today as I am quite independent. I can transfer myself to my bed or car, put on my own clothes, eat, bathe, move around and go to the toilet myself,” says Chua proudly.

Happily, Chua was nominated as one of Cleo magazine’s most eligible bachelors early this year. Although he didn’t win the title, he was the magazine’s first disabled bachelor. He was also recently recruited back into the modelling world.

Chua now owns and runs Beyond Rehab Enterprise, a company that sells rehabilitation equipment, specifically tilt tables and hand cycles invented by his father for SCI (Spinal Cord Injury), stroke and brain-injured patients.

“There are no rehabilitation centres in Malacca,” he grumbles. “How can patients get better if they can only do rehabilitation at the hospital?” Chua’s company gives patients access to affordable rehabilitation and exercise at home. His versions of the tilt table, which lets patients stand by themselves, and the hand cycles are cheaper than those sold at the hospital.

“I exercise on these equipment every day. I also invented an exercise method which is effective in building abdominal muscles. I lift free weights to build my arm muscles. I also practise yoga and qigong to relax and improve my breathing.”

Chua’s ultimate aim is to open a fully-equipped rehabilitation centre in Malacca, and he is looking for a good Samaritan to realise this dream. “I hope someone will support me in building this centre. Not only will it be a worthwhile investment, he or she will have the satisfaction of reaching out and helping lots of people,” he says.

The world celebrated International Day for Persons with Disabilities yesterday but not many of us are aware of the plight of the disabled here in Malaysia. Not having easy access to rehabilitation is just one of many obstacles.

“I’ve seen many able-bodied people parking in handicap spaces, and nobody clamps their car. The handicap public toilets are always locked for some reason and there are no guards in sight to open them. Malacca doesn’t have handicap-friendly public transport and not all buildings, even in Kuala Lumpur, have access ramps. Even if they do, some of them are so poorly maintained that they are not friendly at all,” he points out.

Although his life has changed drastically, Chua strongly believes that everything happens for a reason.
“I know why God rejected me twice and kept me alive. He wants me to give hope to people. There is always hope when you don’t give up. Never be afraid to face challenges and know that every great achievement starts from the impossible. I will continue to work on my rehabilitation towards another miracle. I will walk again.”

Let’s pray he does.

o To learn more about Leonard Chua in his own words, visit his blog at

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