Efforts of teachers, classmates live up to motto to help others in need

Joanna Chong with her parents and form teachers Ms Regina Julian and Ms Melina Chua (far right).

Christopher Khoo

Her cheerful demeanour and shy smiles belie the painful physical challenges she has had to endure over the past few years.

Thirteen-year-old Joanna Chong was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour when she was in Primary 3. She underwent an operation to remove the tumour in Singapore, went to South Korea for a special form of radiotherapy, and returned to Singapore for chemotherapy.

Often the treatments left her weak and unsteady in gait.

Yet through it all, she was determined to continue her studies at CHIJ Our Lady Queen of Peace with the help of her teachers and classmates.

School principal, Mrs Tan-Lim Kim Gek, told Catholic News, “The support and love that Joanna has received from her classmates and teachers come from our mission as an IJ School… The school’s culture is one that believes in the virtues of truth, justice, freedom and love.”

The school is “very happy and humbled to have been part of Joanna’s journey”, she said, adding that Joanna personifies the values of an IJ Girl.

Joanna’s determination to keep up with her studies certainly paid off.

When the PSLE results were released on Nov 22, she scored an aggregate of 186, and qualifies to enter the Normal Academic stream in a secondary school. She has Bs for English, Chinese Language and Science, and a D for Mathematics.

“She was very resilient. She refused to give up,” recalled Ms Melina Chua, Joanna’s Pri 4 form teacher. Even when Ms Chua suggested to Joanna that she might want to skip certain classroom exercises such as dictation as these might be too taxing, she refused, Ms Chua recalled. “She made sure she memorised the whole passage.”

Joanna’s medical challenges emerged in October 2014 when she was in Pri 3. She vomited in the mornings while waiting for the bus to go to school and fainted twice, once in school and another while in student care, said her father, Mr Chong Hui Kwee.

Her parents brought her to a hospital for blood and urine tests, but these did not reveal anything amiss.

When her problems continued, they brought her to another hospital where more tests revealed a 5-cm malignant tumour in her brain.

“We felt really lost. It was quite critical … and it was growing,” said Mr Chong.

Joanna underwent an operation the next day to remove the tumour. However, it had severe side effects. “From a normal kid, everything was down to zero,” said Mr Chong. “She couldn’t move her hand, she couldn’t even speak … just like a newborn baby.”

Her parents had to feed her and assist her in going to the toilet.

The next step was to start radiotherapy. Her parents decided to bring Joanna to South Korea’s National Cancer Centre for proton therapy, which is a more targeted type of radiation therapy that uses high-energy beams to treat tumours. This treatment will only be available in Singapore in the next few years.

“It was there that she started picking up her strength, able to move and able to speak slowly,” said Mr Chong.

They returned to Singapore after two months.

Mr Chong decided to quit his job in research and development to look after his daughter while his wife continued working as a learning and training expert.

Joanna underwent four months of chemotherapy in Singapore in 2015 and returned to school for the last term of Pri 4.

“Our idea was not for her to come back to school to study but to familiarise herself with school life again … Her classmates hadn’t seen her for almost a year,” said Mr Chong.

Grateful Joanna baked cupcakes for her teachers.

The school made special arrangements for Mr Chong to sit outside Joanna’s classroom so he could assist her should she need to go to the toilet or walk from class to class.

“The principal, the vice-principals and all the teachers… have been really very supportive … It felt more like a family than a school,” said Mr Chong.

He recalled that often, Joanna was unable to finish her work in class due to tiredness. “But she was very determined. She wanted to finish her work before the next day, so she often ended up doing her homework till 11 pm,” he said.

And this was despite the fact that her teacher had told her that she need not hand in her work the next day if she was unable to complete it.

Joanna repeated Pri 4 the next year in 2016 and went on to Pri 5 and 6. To assist Joanna, the school arranged for her to be given more time during exams.

Ms Regina Julian, her form teacher for the last two years, noted that one of Joanna’s biggest achievements was participating in the Pri 5 Adventure Camp at Changi, where she took part in the High Elements course.

This required her to balance herself on ropes several metres above the ground while moving from one point to another.

She also took part in the school’s sports day for both years. Ms Julian noted that her schoolmates accepted her as part of a running team despite knowing that she would be slower than the rest.

“And we cheered for her when she completed the race!” said Ms Julian. “She’s like a role model to a lot of the children.”

And what would she like to be when she grows up?

“I want to be someone who can help other people… like when they are in need,” she said with a shy smile.

What advice would she give to other students who may be experiencing similar health challenges and who still want to study?

“Never give up and keep trying, because without trying you’ll never know if you can do this thing or not,” said Joanna, who has two brothers aged 16 and 18. Her family is Buddhist.

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