Friday, 13 April 2012

Go Ahead And Chew It

I wrote this two years ago, when I came out of hibernation and started freelancing again. This was my first story to be featured in a national newspaper after all that time...and it's one I'm still attached to. I love writing about people with spirit, the ones who refuse to lie down and feel sorry for themselves...the ones who set themselves crazy goals and beat the odds, the ones who shine a light, so the rest of us can know, the folks who live on the bright side...

When Major Aruel Prakash Subramaniam was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus type 1 at 18, he thought his life was over. The doctors who trotted out their usual list of “don’ts” did little to help matters. And loved ones who greeted the news with hushed voices and funereal expressions were no better.

“I became very depressed. Everyone was sympathetic without offering the least encouragement,” he admitted, looking back at that fateful time, some 24 years later.

Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder. Type 1 is the more severe form of the disorder where the pancreas has ceased to function and produces no insulin. These patients are required to inject themselves with insulin two to three times a day. Those with Type 2 Diabetes are producing some insulin but not enough. They take pills.

It didn’t help that Prakash, who had just entered the job market, was dismissed from job after potential job, as soon as his condition was detected. “Sometimes I would have been working at the company in question for two weeks, and when I went for my medical, they asked me to leave.”

Then he met Datuk Dr. Singaveraloo, who is now president of the Johor chapter of the Malaysian Diabetes Association, the first physician to assure him that he would be able to lead a normal life.

He had also started reading everything he could lay his hands on about diabetes and was delighted to discover that many famous people, including Elvis Presley, Thomas Edison and Marilyn Monroe, were in fact, diabetic. They hadn’t let it stop them from living successful and fulfilling lives and he wasn’t going to either.

Prakash finally found a company that would take him on and let him prove himself, regardless of his condition. And prove himself he did, working his way up from junior planner to factory manager. Then, some 11 years ago, he started his own logistics company, handling road trucking and air freight.

But his medical condition had been getting worse. In 2007, his kidney function had deteriorated by 70 % and he decided that his treatment, which he had adhered to punctiliously, was not working. It was time to take matters into his own hands.

Prakash went online to research the best diabetic facilities in the world and came upon a website for the Dr Mohan Diabetes Hospital and Research Centre in Chennai, India. He was given an appointment, put through a battery of tests and told that he had “basic diabetes complications” but his condition was reversible.

They changed his medication and adjusted his insulin dosages. The results were almost immediate. Within a few months his blood sugar had moved from “poor control” according to the HBA1C test which measures the average glucose content in the blood over a period of three months, to “fair control”. Now after three years, it has moved up to “good control”. And his kidney function is almost perfect.

The immediate improvement in his health had some unlooked-for effects. Prakash, who was active in Rela (where he holds the rank of major) and a few other non-governmental and sports organisations, decided to show other diabetics that with proper management, they too could achieve whatever they set their minds on.

He planned a single man rally, from Johor Bahru to Cambodia in just eight days a 7,000-km trip. To do it in the time specified he would have to push himself to the limit. The drive would be gruelling even for a perfectly healthy person. For a diabetic who had to inject himself twice a day, it would be test the limits.

He purchased an olive green Mitsubishi L-200 and decided to make the trip in August which was special for two reasons; it was the month of his birthday; it coincided with the 50th Merdeka celebrations. Clad in a Malaysian flag that he had tailored into a shirt and festooning his car with little flags, he took off with little fanfare and almost no publicity.

The Malaysia leg was easy. But once he got to Thailand, things became a little challenging. Firstly, the rest stops were effectively huts where you could break off your journey and cook your food. He subsisted on high fibre biscuits dipped in a can of tuna fish for about two days, before he couldn’t take it anymore and cooked himself a proper meal of rice and curry on his portable stove. Passing through the villages, he would stop at wet markets to get fresh supplies. Failing this, he lived off the cans.

Being fastidious about personal hygiene, he would stop at waterfalls or rivers to take a bath. If there were no waterfalls on offer, he would stop at a village and knock on the door of one of the rude huts, and then with smiles, gestures and offers to pay in packets of biscuits, indicate that he wanted a bath. “Some not only allowed me to take a bath, but would make me a cup of coffee when I was done. And they were so happy with the simple things I could offer them in payment.”

Quite often, maps being what they are, he lost his way. He recalls desperately trying to communicate with the locals by pointing to a spot on the map to indicate where he wanted to go, and getting amused chuckles in response. But he eventually worked his way out of the mess, losing only a few hours, in these unlooked for detours.

The entire trip only cost him RM2,000.

The next year, he planned to drive up right to the border of Burma, a 9,000 to 12,000 km. This time he wanted to induce other diabetic patients to come with him. His rationale? “If I can do it, so can you.”

They laughed in his face.

So he set off on his one-man rally, again with very little fanfare and publicity, and made the trip in nine days. It cost him a total of RM3,200.

He was unable to go last year. This year (2010), he plans to drive 21,000 to 23,000 km, covering Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, in 14 days, despite the fact that according to his calculations, it should take two days longer. He is packing car spare parts, extra tires, 200 litres of drinking water, high fibre biscuits, cans of tuna fish and chicken curry, some grains, assorted spices and packets of instant noodles to give away to villagers he meets along the way.

He still wants other diabetics to come with him but as yet, there are no takers. He pushes on, nonetheless.

His motto in life: “Always bite off more than you think you can chew. And then go ahead and prove you can do it.”

Always bite off more than you think you can chew; then go ahead and chew it.

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