When Daniel Ong rang in the new year in 2013, he was at the prime of his life.
Then aged 37 going on 38, the nutritionist had a successful practice and was happily married to Stephanie Magnus, a lawyer.
Life was humming along to a pretty tune with no indication of the onslaught that was to be unleashed in a matter of months.
Come May 2013, less than five months on, his 38th birthday had to be celebrated in a hospital ward at the National University Hospital (NUH). By then, Ong was battling an illness that neither he nor his loved ones had ever heard of: Hairy cell leukaemia.
That was five years ago.
Today, he relates his battle with the dreaded C-word lightheartedly, punctuated with funny insights.
Hairy cell leukaemia is a rare cancer of the blood where the bone marrow produces too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells. These cells look hairy when the bone marrow is examined under the microscope, hence its name.
“It is very rare, a classic textbook illness. Most doctors would have heard of it but not encountered it. This form of leukaemia typically affects Caucasians, 50 years and above,” Ong explains.
He is quick to add: “I sure ain’t 50 years old and I ain’t Caucasian … unless I am a closet Caucasian!
“The spleen is usually so small that it is hidden. My spleen had swelled to 26cm.
“I told the doctors, nah, those are abs that you could grate your cheese on.” He chuckles again.
It was his sister-in-law who first advised him to seek medical attention when she noticed he looked off-colour.
“She said that I looked a bit yellow. I told her I’m Chinese, what colour do you want me to be?
“It was just like me, always trying to crack jokes.”
It took him three months to heed his sister-in-law’s advice.
That was also when his life unraveled. The tide turned and Ong’s life gave way to a tempest.
“My doctor said, ‘For some weird reason whomever you’re praying to definitely loves you.’”
Initially, the doctors could not pinpoint what was wrong; they continued running diagnostic tests even as visitors streamed in.
“My pastor-friend came and said, ‘Daniel, be joyful in all circumstances.’ I was like, huh? How to be joyful?
“Papa Khoo (Khoo Oon Theam) also came. He looked at me and the first thing he said was, ‘Daniel, I’ll give you Proverbs 17:22.’ Those days, my Bible knowledge was not quite there, so I just said, um, okay.”
It was after the diagnosis was confirmed that Ong opened his Bible, which by providence opened to Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
The words jumped out at him and he was momentarily stunned as the verse paralleled his life. He thought to himself: “Was it something that Papa Khoo knew, or was it God?
“This is where the story really begins.”
Hairy cell leukaemia is a rarity in Singapore. When Ong was first diagnosed, the hospital had to order the drugs from abroad. Orders for medicine usually take two months to arrive, but they came through for Ong in a week.
“Then it hit me: This cannot be another coincidence.Someone is trying to talk to me.”
“I said to Dr Koh Liang Piu, my doctor: ‘You said it will take two months for the medicine to come, this is only one week!’
“My doctor told me, ‘For some weird reason whomever you’re praying to definitely loves you.’
“The prescription they had sent was ordered some time back by a doctor who never got to use it. It happened that the dose of medication fit me and matched my weight and height. And the last two injections could be administered just before the drug expired.
“Then it hit me: This cannot be another coincidence. Someone is trying to talk to me.”
By the end of his hospital stay in 2013, Ong had chalked up a massive medical bill.
“I had this $300,000 medical bill, so how?”
He posed the question and was, at the same time, excited to elaborate.
“My wife, Stephanie, who had been working with Baker McKenzie, a US law firm, for more than a decade, had the opportunity to buy into a medical insurance plan. I remember when we first bought the plan, there was a clause that didn’t allow the spouse to be insured. But Obamacare helped write off most of my medical bill.”
God had come through once more.
After his treatment in Singapore in 2013, Ong planned a trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston Texas, a top-ranked medical facility that is well known for cancer research and clinical care.
However, just two days before Ong was to fly off to the United States, he came down with a lung infection and had to be warded.
“Three weeks into hospitalisation, I turned on the CNN channel while eating breakfast, and there was a report that the MD Anderson Center’s hospital blood bank had run dry.
“God is ready to fight together with us if we open the door and let Him come alongside.”
“I knew straightaway that, if I had gone to the United States, I would not have been able to get the blood transfusion I needed and that would have been a big problem.
“The lung infection disappeared mysteriously soon after, just as it had appeared mysteriously.”
The twists and turns of his life have not been lost on Ong. Beneath the jovial and almost cavalier attitude is a quiet quest to make peace with himself and find peace in God.
“It’s sometimes very hard to understand why some people get healing while others don’t. How to deal with that – I don’t have the answer. All I can say is God is ready to fight together with us if we open the door and let Him come alongside.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
These are now promises that Ong holds close.
Exactly two years after Ong was first diagnosed with hairy cell leukaemia, he had a relapse and was back at NUH, where he passed yet another birthday in the hospital ward.
“If I had not been ill, I would have been a believer who just went to church … a lifeless Christian.”
“Those two months in hospital was like, ugh! But I now look back and know exactly why God wanted me there as well.”
During that second bout of illness, Ong resolutely made his hospital stay count for something. The affable patient shared his faith with the medical team who attended to him. Through that, a young doctor came back to faith and another found faith and was baptised in March earlier this year.
“If I had not been ill, I would have been a believer who just went to church … a lifeless Christian. I think this second chance in life is really for me to to sing His story,” he reflects.
Strength from loved ones
Ong’s journey of faith and battle against illness was a passage that was supported by loved ones. Cheerful as he is by nature, he was not spared from bouts of despondency.
“When you are not in the best of moods, it’s very easy to beat yourself up. Thank God for my wife. Stephanie was there all the time. I was not allowed to fall.
“When you know the promises God has given you, you have to stand on them. Let God be in control.”
“When she knew I was going to become depressed, she would literally pick me up and get me out of the house. I remember once, I was all dressed and ready to go for Kingdom Invasion. Then, for some reason I got into this weird mood and didn’t want to go. I started to complain that my jacket felt tight. Stephanie said, ‘No, you’re going! If your jacket is tight there are other jackets.’ She took along the other jackets and yanked me out of the house. I was a little upset in the car but once at the venue I was fine.
“It was something that she knew she had to do. She was very firm and didn’t allow me to stay home to mope.
“The strong faith of my in-laws also helped in my recovery. Their household is one of positivity; they have been a great encouragement for me to find light in the darkest situation.”
Ong has just spent six months alone in the United Kingdom. Between May and November this year, he was in London for a targeted treatment under Dr Claire Dearden’s watch. She is a haematologist specialising in leukaemia.
“There were times when it was a struggle. When I was at the edge of falling into depression, I remembered how my wife had helped pull me up before. In London, there was no one to pull me up, but I just had to do it myself.
“When you have the Christian faith and know the promises God has given you, you have to stand on them. Let God be in control.”
For someone who has been thrown into life’s deep end, Ong is all the more determined to make good the lifeline that has been thrown to him.
Years earlier, Stephanie had broached the idea of hosting Alpha at their home. Ong was reluctant, but his wife went ahead anyway. This was in 2012.
Today the couple continues to host Alpha sessions in their home – no more reluctance this time.
These days this youthful looking nutritionist also spends much of his time doing mission work with the United Bible Societies China Partnership.
“When I started this journey, I was miserable and negative. Now I am thankful that, through this, I have learnt to trust God and His promises.
“If I didn’t get a second chance in life, I would not have had the opportunity to be more intimate with God. I am not so anxious about what the results will be anymore. We need to finish the race well.”