Raw fish meal left high flyer in world of silence
Man loses his hearing after contracting GBS infection leading to meningitis from eating raw-fish porridge
He was a high flyer who closed multi-million dollar deals for a multi-national company.
Then a simple meal changed his life, perhaps forever, by robbing him of his hearing.
On Nov 15, Mr Sim Tharn Chun, 53, and his family had a meal at the Tiong Bahru Market and Food Centre, where he ate raw-fish porridge.
He ended up among one of about 360 people who were affected by the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria last year. The bacteria is found in raw fish.
Mr Sim drifted in and out of consciousness in hospital for almost two weeks.
When he finally recovered, he realised his world had become silent. He had lost his hearing completely in the right ear and 90 per cent of hearing in his left.
Although he had cochlear implants in both ears, they have not improved his hearing.
Sitting in the living room of his five-room flat in Woodlands, he recently opened up to The New Paper about his nightmare.
Replying to TNP's written questions, he spoke in a slightly raised voice because of his inability to hear himself.
"I was closing deals worth millions of dollars," said Mr Sim, who was Singapore and Philippines country manager for the scanning and mobility division of industry giant Honeywell.
Nowadays, he spends his time wondering when, and if, he can return to work and provide for his family again.
After eating the raw fish, he had an upset stomach and body aches for the next four days.
On Nov 19, he took half a day off from work. That evening, his wife Cathryn Sim, 43, realised he had an extremely high fever and called for an ambulance.
At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Mr Sim was immediately taken to the intensive care unit, where he was heavily sedated. For 12 days, he was in and out of consciousness until he woke up on Dec 1.
Mrs Sim, a financial consultant, said: "I was praying very hard for my husband's recovery. I was also stressed because I had to make key decisions about his medical care."
SUPPORT: Mr Sim Tharn Chun says his wife, Mrs Cathryn Sim, has been his pillar of strength. PHOTO COURTESY OF MRS CATHRYN SIM
For Mr Sim, who is quick to credit his wife for being there for him and for doting on him, the experience was bewildering.
"When I woke up, I was delirious. I didn't know what had happened to me," he said.
"I thought I had a bad nightmare."
Then he found out about his hearing loss, a side effect of what was diagnosed as GBS leading to meningitis.
Suddenly marooned in a world with no sound, Mr Sim resorted to scribbling on writing pads and typing on his phone to communicate.
"I thought it would just be a matter of time before everything would be okay," he said.
He was discharged on New Year's Eve, after 43 days in hospital.
Though doctors wanted him to continue his rehabilitation at Yishun Community Hospital for another month, he decided to do it at home.
But any hope of a quick recovery was short-lived. Tests in January confirmed the hearing loss would be long-term.
As someone who relied heavily on communication in his work, Mr Sim described the experience as "frustrating and stressful".
Mr Sim's post-op surgery scars for his cochlear implants. PHOTO COURTESY OF MRS CATHRYN SIM
On Jan 20, he had surgery to insert the cochlear implant.
Although he can hear sounds now, he is unable to tell them apart.
"I don't know whether the sounds are spoken words or the banging of a door. Everything sounds like a broken speaker to me," he said.
He was told the implant would take longer to reach full effectiveness because of the severity of the meningitis.
Six months after leaving the hospital, his inability to hear properly had affected his once active lifestyle.
The golf bag in the corner of the living room has not been touched and he continues to rely on his wife to be his ears.
Still, Mr Sim is happy that he is out and about, walking on his own, which he credits to his wife.
"When I came out of hospital, she took the time to go walking with me in the evenings to help me regain my strength," he said with a smile.
But he is worried about his future.
Mr Sim said he and Honeywell had agreed that it was best for him to leave the company so that he could recuperate fully.
TNP PHOTO: CHOO CHWEE HUA
There is a standing offer for him to rejoin the company once his hearing returns, which he remains cautiously optimistic about.
"They were compassionate enough to give me a very generous goodwill package," he said.
"It is enough to last me and my family until the end of 2016. But beyond that, I'm worried."
His three children are aged between 14 and 18, with the eldest graduating from Temasek Polytechnic this year. Mr Sim wonders if he can afford to send them for further education.
"I just want to regain my hearing so that I can get back to work and provide for my family," he said.
But it is not his earning power that he misses most. His greatest loss, he says, is not being able to hear the voices of his wife and children.
"Sometimes, I can see them laughing, but I cannot share the moment with them," said Mr Sim in a choking voice as his eyes tear up.
"Other times, I know from their faces that they are having some sort of argument. But I can't give my input on how things can be better addressed."
I don't know whether the sounds are spoken words or the banging of a door. Everything sounds like a broken speaker to me.
- Mr Sim Tharn Chun
The timeline of the GBS outbreak
JULY 24, 2015
The Ministry of Health (MOH), Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and National Environment Agency (NEA) investigate a spike in the number of Group B Streptococcus (GBS) cases.
Early MOH investigations on a small number of cases find a link between eating raw fish, specifically song and toman fish, and GBS cases.
NEA advises all licensed operators of eateries and food stalls to temporarily stop the sale of raw-fish dishes that use song and toman fish.
NOV 27, 2015
MOH releases an update that it found a link between eating Chinese-style ready-to-eat (RTE) raw-fish dishes and the Type III GBS disease, specifically the Sequence Type 283.
NEA advises food establishments selling RTE raw-fish dishes to ensure that they source raw fish from suppliers with good food hygiene practices and proper cold-chain management.
They have to stop selling Chinese-style RTE raw fish until they can show that they can comply with the good practices needed to sell it.
DEC 5, 2015
The use of freshwater fish in all RTE meals is banned until further notice.
Eateries selling raw-fish dishes can use only saltwater fish intended for raw consumption.
Food stalls and caterers must stop selling RTE dishes using saltwater fish until they can comply with the practices required for such dishes.
Restaurants can continue to sell raw saltwater fish, which includes salmon, as they generally observe hygiene standards and source the meat from suppliers of fish intended for raw consumption.
MOH says there have been about 360 reported cases of GBS, with two fatalities. About 150 of the cases are linked to the consumption of Chinese-style raw fish.
This is a huge jump from the 150 reported GBS cases from 2010 to 2014.
What is Group B streptococcus?
Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a common bacteria found in the gut and urinary tract of 15 to 30 per cent of adults.
Although it does not usually cause diseases, it may cause infections of the skins, joints, heart and brain.
It has been known to affect newborn babies, the elderly and people whose immune systems are compromised.
In rare occasions, it can infect healthy young people and middle-aged adults.
The outbreak last year was traced by MOH to the consumption of Chinese-style ready-to-eat raw fish and the Type III GBS disease, in particular the Sequence Type 283 that is believed to be more aggressive than other strains. .
The most common symptom of GBS infections is fever. Other symptoms depend on the site of the bacterial infection.