Having a “very stressful disease”

by | May 28, 2024

Tan Hoon Keng never thought she would get shingles and now having had it 10 years ago, she still isn’t fully recovered.


Tan Hoon Keng and her daughter, actress Cynthia Koh.

Tan Hoon Keng, 75, never thought she would get shingles, which is a viral infection that causes a painful rash, but she did.

It was one afternoon in 2014, the mother of two, shared that she felt the feeling of spinning/vertigo and she started vomiting. She also felt weak. Her daughter, actress Cynthia Koh then drove her to the A&E where she was warded for observation.

During her stay at the hospital, she developed a mild fever and the doctors noticed red blisters in her left ear, which they later confirmed as shingles. The doctors put her on antibiotics IV drip for about a week and the blisters disappeared. She started to feel better so after a week, they discharged her from the hospital.


It happened again

However, five days being at home, the spinning feeling came back and much worse than the first time. She couldn’t stand or walk, she felt nauseous and she vomited again. Also, her mouth drooped, her eyes couldn’t close and her nose dripped mucus. Her ear inside was also blistery. Hoon Keng remarked, “It was so bad that I couldn’t move my body much without feeling nauseous so I checked into the hospital again.”

This time around, the doctors did a barrage of tests including several CT scans and a lumbar puncture to make sure that the virus did not spread to other parts of the body besides her ear. She stayed in the hospital for another three weeks.

She added: “It didn’t cross my mind that I would have shingles because like I mentioned the rash wasn’t on my body and it wasn’t visible.” She explained that an earlier cataract surgery before the shingles happened could have meant that she had a compromised immunity and this may have triggered shingles. Other risk factors for shingles include age, particularly those older than 50, some diseases that weaken the immune system like HIV/AIDS and cancer, cancer treatments, and some medications like long-term use of steroids. Shingles is not to be confused with chicken pox even though it is the same virus.

Thanks to the thorough checks at the hospital, Hoon Keng’s doctors further pinpointed that what she had was Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which occurs when a shingles outbreak affects the facial nerve near one of the ears. In addition to the painful shingles rash, Ramsay Hunt syndrome can cause facial paralysis and hearing loss in the affected ear, according to information from US’ Mayo Clinic. It is also what singer Justin Bieber had in 2022.

Unfortunately, Hoon Keng’s second visit coincided with her birthday making it as she said, “very unforgettable”.

In this second hospital visit, she had to not only contend with antiviral IV therapy to help the body fight against the virus but also physiotherapy as it affected the nerves on the left side of her face. “My facial muscles were drooping and I looked like a stroke patient. I didn’t have any control over my left facial muscles, so I had to work very hard during my physiotherapy to regain control. When I slept, my left eye couldn’t close completely and I had to tape my left eye shut,” added Hoon Keng.


Tough road to recovery

Mother and daughter together.

When she finally went home from the hospital, she faced several challenges. “I had neighbours and relatives asking me questions when they saw that I had a drooping face. It was just very depressing to keep repeating my story and trying to keep positive. My balance was affected too. I just couldn’t move around as freely as before.” As a result, she resigned herself to staying at home.

Calling shingles a “very stressful disease”, looking back, Hoon Keng explained, “Stressful because you have to commit to those daily physio exercises and weekly follow-ups, and hoping that I would completely recover. There were days when I wanted  to give up … but I told myself I just had to keep trying and trust that I would recover one day.”

 “I used to be an outgoing person. I enjoy meeting my friends for karaoke, mahjong and catching up over tea. All these changed after shingles. It took me close to a year of constant physiotherapy and home-based exercises to recover.”

However, she is still not quite herself like before. “It’s not a full recovery, even now I can’t hear very well in my left ear. I get giddy spells from time to time and my body tends to sway to the left when I walk, which means my balance is still affected.”

After a year since getting shingles, she did pluck up the courage to venture out of her home, but not alone. She said, “I don’t want my children to worry if anything happens to me. The helper is with me most of the time when I need to be out.”

Having experienced shingles, she has this advice for others –  “Being healthy is the best gift for yourself. So, If you suspect you are suffering from shingles, go to the nearest doctor immediately. Don’t wait. The aftermath of shingles is not to be taken lightly.”


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