Singapore lawyer declared brain dead wakes up amid calls to pull plug on her
Published on Mar 24, 2013
By K.c. Vijayan
Lawyer Suzanne Chin is convinced that what happened to her four years ago is nothing short of a miracle.
The mother of two was living and working in Hong Kong when she suffered a heart attack, was hospitalised in a coma and declared brain dead.
The head of the intensive care unit, two neurologists and a cardiologist told her husband to prepare for the worst. Soon, he was advised to take her off life support because, simply put, there was no hope.
Then, three days after she was admitted, she woke up from her coma. She recovered within a week and left the hospital. Today, she is living in Singapore, still working as a lawyer, still a wife and mum. She is well, and she is alive.
Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon recalled her remarkable story in a speech earlier this month on euthanasia and assisted dying. When The Sunday Times contacted Ms Chin for her story, she agreed only to answer questions via e-mail.
Her husband, private investor John Alabaster, described what he went through too and said one thing was clear to him throughout their ordeal: "I did not talk to my children about switching off the life support simply because it was not an option for me."
But first, this is what happened to them in April 2009.
April 20 started out as just another morning in their household. The usual scramble to get the children off to school before Ms Chin took off on her usual morning hike with her dog.
But a few minutes after leaving home, she returned. She was in no pain but felt something was amiss. It was after she showered that she felt something was wrong and alerted her husband.
"The last thing I remember was expressly forbidding him from calling an ambulance," she said.
She was taken unconscious to hospital and sent to the ICU. She had no history of heart problems, but had suffered a cardiac arrest.
It was a huge shock for her husband. One day, everything had been normal for the couple, both in their 40s, and their children then aged 12, and seven. The next day, she was in a coma and it looked very bad.
The specialists told Mr Alabaster she had suffered brain stem death and he had to prepare himself for "letting her go". "In their opinion - and they were very firm - there was absolutely no chance of any sort of recovery," he recalled.
The next day, a doctor asked him if he had thought about it because his wife was neurologically lifeless, a valve in her heart had been severely damaged and there was no point keeping her alive.
Things looked "worse than bleak" but he refused to say yes to switching off his wife's life support, even though the doctor had been well intentioned. "But his demeanour when I told him of my decision to reject his opinion was one of patronising incredulity coupled with an unsaid 'oh, you'll come around'," he said.
On the third day, she revived.
Ms Chin opened her eyes to see her husband bending over her, then she realised they were not at home, and noticed the wires and tubes stuck all over her body.
"I realised that I was in a hospital and with tears in his eyes, my husband said that everything was going to be all right," she said. "Within a very few hours, I was able to grasp a marker pen and I was able slowly to converse with the people around me."
What remains vivid is what she described as a recurring vision during the lost days when she was in a coma.
She said: "I saw myself lying on a bed unable to move or speak. A man appeared by my side. He did not seem overtly threatening in any way but something in me sensed that he was not good.
"He told me that if I wanted to move or speak, all I would have to do was to follow him. I demanded that he leave me alone, but he would not go away. Over and over again I repeated this. I also prayed without ceasing.
"After a while, the man faded away. This vision repeated several times, but on what turned out to be the last occasion, the man started to get angry. He threatened to 'take' my daughter if I refused to 'follow' him. Again, I was resolute and unyielding, telling him he had no power over me as I was a child of God.
"It was at that moment that I woke from my coma to see my husband John standing by my bed."
People she has related this to have asked if it might have been a dream. She said: "What is amazing is that this happened at a time when medically, I had been pronounced as being brain dead."
Ms Chin's recovery from first opening her eyes to sitting up with her feet over the side of the bed took just 36 hours.
"Not one doctor who treated me while in hospital or subsequently any specialist that I have seen since, either in Hong Kong or later in Singapore, has been able to account for the speed of my recovery or that I was able to come back from that hopeless position at all," she said.
"There is no doubt that I had suffered massive brain damage resulting in brain stem death. If one looks at the situation rationally and logically, there is no explanation for what happened. I truly believe that this was a miracle from God and that I have been blessed with a second chance."
Ms Chin and her husband said that while both are Christians, neither was committed or active in church at the time.
It was her brother, Dr Alan Chin, a Singapore doctor and a fervent Christian, who flew to Hong Kong, prayed with Mr Alabaster when she appeared the worst and believed that she would pull through.
Dr Chin told The Sunday Times he was shocked to find his sister diagnosed with brain stem death. "My medical training told me there was no hope, but my faith in God said that there was hope in Jesus Christ," he said.
Mr Alabaster recalled mounting pressure from the medical staff treating his wife to "put Suzanne - and ourselves - out of our misery by switching off machines that were keeping her alive." Even when she made an occasional twitch, they quashed his hopes by insisting that it was purely a reflex. Their talk always returned to "saying goodbye" and "letting go".
"I, on the other hand, hopefully and prayerfully saw in these very slight movements a base from which to see further progress," he said. They made him wonder if his brother-in-law could be right, that she would be healed.
What was also distressing was that as news of Ms Chin's sudden illness spread, many of her friends from Hong Kong and elsewhere began arriving at her bedside, and Mr Alabaster knew that from talking to the medical staff, they too expected the worst.
What was hardest for him though, was talking to his daughter and son about their mother.
"I had told them that Mum was sick and in the infirmary - that was understandable to them as they had both been born at the same hospital," he said.
He tried to put up a cheerful front and hoped to slowly break the news that they might lose their mother. But soon friends and family were arriving and he had to tell them she was seriously ill.
But he never told them about switching off the life support.
"It wasn't that it was a choice I did not want to face, it was just not something I could or would ever sanction. The point was not that the person on that bed connected to all those austere machines was my wife.
"It was more fundamental than that... If that machine were to be turned off, all hope would vanish and I only had God and hope to rely on."
Then, as suddenly as she had taken ill, Ms Chin made a recovery that astounded the doctors and nurses. "But their confusion and bafflement was juxtaposed with the amazement, relief and total ecstasy that my children and I were feeling as, by God's grace, we had got our Suzanne back.
"Ten days after the attack she was as good as new. The tear in her heart valve that was so obvious on several ECGs and the ensuing poor heart performance was totally healed. This restoration, I am told, cannot happen without open heart surgery as heart valves do not repair by themselves.
"Suzanne's brain activity was totally back to normal and from that day to this has never had even the slightest relapse."
In the days that followed her recovery, Ms Chin learnt about all that had happened and how her doctors were convinced there was no hope and it would be best to let her die, but her brother was so sure she would live.
She said: "It pains me to think about what my husband, my children, my family and friends went through. It was a tremendously difficult time for all of them. Yet when faced with such a difficult decision, they chose to fight for me. Without their faith, I would not be here today, able to recount this story."