Alden Boon

Lisa Teng: How Caring for the Elderly Allows Her to Answer Her Calling as a Christian

September 11, 2017

Lisa Teng is lying on a bed fitted with white cotton-polyester bedsheet. Only laboured staccato breaths she draws, her life whittling away as a dandelion bracing the onset of a gale. Pools of blood — hers — stain the floor with a crimson. An army of nurses fusses about her, prodding and jabbing her with needles. The blood pressure machine beeps hauntingly as her blood level plunges to dangerous lows.

But even as her life teetered precariously and hanged by the last frayed end of a thread, even in this panicked cacophony, Lisa felt an inexplicable stillness; an inner peace. “There was a cross hung on the wall facing my bed in the ICU. I uttered to God: ‘I give up. Do what you want with me.’ And that’s when I felt His strength take over. I knew that I had God on my side, and so in this battle against death victory was mine.”

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When I was ill and in despair, Matthew 9:20-22 was the passage that, in a wall of text, leapt from the page. God spoke to me, and comforted me.

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.

She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’

Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.’

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Lisa was not a born Christian; her family believes in Buddhism. It was not until her brush with death in 2012 that she discovered God.  A cyst in her womb caused insistent bleeding. Against her doctor’s advice she chose not to remove her womb even though she had passed her child-bearing age, for she was not ready, and also she was uninsured, fearing that any surgery would ring up expensive medical bills. Yet the condition was affecting her everyday life, stripping her of the ability to run her thriving fashion business. Bereft of vitality, she required herculean efforts even when climbing up flights of stairs.

Like tumbling dominoes, her anemia engendered a deficiency in minerals, which in turn caused her to develop a disorder called Pica: an irrational appetite for non-nutritive substances such as chalk, paper and even paint. In Lisa’s case, soap. “I just loved the smell of it. I’d go to hotels to collect them. I switched all of my shower gel and laundry detergent to soap — any excuse I had to get close to it.” At the height of her addiction, the fragrant blocks were esculent to her, and she wanted to eat them.

Fed up with two gynaecologists who were unable to find a panacea for her, she sought a third opinion, but not before praying to God for some help. And God answered her prayer, directing her to her third doctor, also a believer of Christ, who informed her that she had been misdiagnosed: There were in fact three cysts, the other two so embedded they were not immediately visible.

Read how Buddhism has helped Dr Siew Tuck Wah, President of Saving Our Street Dogs, to find his purpose in life. 

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When I was a nascent Christian, I questioned God: ‘Why didn’t You heal me?’ In retrospect, I was chasing after miraculous healing, instead of chasing after the Healer.

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Letting go of emotional entanglements

Lisa’s eventual recovery was nothing short of miraculous, and even her doctor marvelled at the swift return of her vigour. Her transcendent relationship with God was not only light in her darkest, most desperate hour, but it also helped to assuage a deep-seated guilt. One of losing her mother.

In her twilight years, Lisa’s late mother had debilitating health, and she suffered a host of illnesses, from diabetes to high blood pressure. She was also wizened by cancer and multiple strokes. Her behaviour took a radical turn: at relatives and the family’s helper she often spewed accusations of theft.

While staying with Lisa’s brother in Malaysia, her mother took a fall, which went unreported by the helper who feared repercussions. She developed a swelling in the brain, and her behaviour became even more eccentric, which Lisa and her brothers chalked it up to the symptoms of her other illnesses. It was only when she started conversing in Malay that they knew was something not right — she was not fluent in Malay! [Editor’s note: This is likely caused by aphasia, an impairment of language following a stroke or head trauma.] Her mother was rushed to the hospital; she never walked through that door.

Many nights Lisa dreamt of her late mother, and many rivers of tears she would cry. The heft of losing her mother, coupled with a welter of regret and self-blame that she had failed as a daughter, haunted Lisa. “I hated myself for not paying more attention to my mother when she needed me the most. I could not forgive myself, and this burden ate at me and drove me crazy.”

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By then I was already saved by God, but my mother died as a non-believer. I was so lost. I said to God: ‘How could you take my mother away? Why couldn’t you wait? Is she in hell? I will not get to see my mother in the afterlife!’

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In her time of quivering faith, the words of a counsellor from church brought renewed hope, like the sighting of shore after nights of being stranded at sea of turbulent waves. “He asked, ‘Lisa, have you been reading the Bible?’ Honestly, at the time, I found the Bible boring,” quips Lisa. “But my counsellor urged me to go home and read the Bible.” Lisa heeded his advice — she flipped open the book, and by divine intervention not happenstance landed on the page inked with the passage 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the words as if gleaming left her incredulous.

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Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

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Lisa immediately felt the extrication from her emotional bondage, these words of God lifting her like a wind that carries a weightless thistledown. The following Sunday, the Lord again spoke to Lisa, this time using her pastor as a messenger. “I’m a Cantonese, and for the first time in his sermons my pastor spoke in my dialect. He said, ‘Do you know that we are made up of spirit, soul and flesh? Even when a person departs this world while in a coma, the spirit is still very much alive. Jesus has come to receive the spirit, and He says, ‘I love your daughter, are you ready to go with me?’ At that I cried again, for I am my mother’s daughter, and I knew that Jesus saved her.” That very Sunday, Lisa was released from a long-tormenting guilt.

Lisa Teng | Caregiver Dementia

Answering her calling

Lisa’s personal ordeal and loss make her uniquely qualified to be a caregiver, and today she freelances as one, taking on tasks assigned by agencies such as Homage. Kismet it was that began her journey. Lisa used to work with children, but an administrative error placed her in a church outreach ministry that reaches out to the elderly.

It was not a position Lisa accepted with alacrity. “Everyone loves working with children because they are cute and cheerful, the elderly not so much.” She was also very particular about hygiene and cleanliness, and clouds of doubt began to form in her mind as to whether she could care for elderly folks who suffer from incontinence. “I prayed to God, and asked Him to help me. I am only human, but He is strong, and He fills me with love, so that I can be a vessel of love to my charges. I asked that He helps me to say and do things that bring glory to Him. By the grace of God, I was put in this new position.”

Lisa Teng | Caregiver Dementia

Backbreaking work

Amongst her charges are dementia patients, who while still lucid are gradually losing their cognitive functions and mobility. The early days of building a rapport with a senior are wrought with mind-taxing challenges. Viewed as a persona non grata, Lisa has had chairs thrown in her direction, and was even chased out of the house. That they need a caregiver is a devastating blow to the egos of dementia patients, many of whom are still struggling to come to terms with their reduced capabilities. To them, Lisa’s presence in their homes was that of an intrusive opossum in a still-vibrant garden.

Despite these challenges, Lisa never walks away, for doing so signals her giving up. “I try not to take any snarky remarks or aggressive behaviours personally; it’s the illness that is speaking, not the person. Getting them to open the door and let you in is the first step to establishing trust. Once you’re inside the house, you can then begin to render assistance.”

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Dementia patients are not stupid or crazy. They are very aware of what is happening, and they are upset about their conditions — they are just embarrassed to admit they require help with the simple tasks. They are in the same plight as a runner who has just lost his limbs. I cannot treat them, but I am here to lend support. I want to care for them, so that their family members do not have to go through what I did with my mother.

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Once in, Lisa still has her work cut out for her. Because of her altered perception of water, one of Lisa’s patients who has Alzheimer’s disease is terrified of showering. Having gone a long period without showering, the patient’s skin was blotched with black, and she reeked. Lisa had to get creative to ensure her hygiene, using body moisturer and cream as a salve to clean her.

Another time, a stroke patient of hers took a serious fall. “It was supposed to be an afternoon session, but I just felt this force impelling me to visit her early. Again, this was God’s will in action.” The patient was much taller in stature and heavier. Propping her up using her own body, Lisa had to, inch by inch, support her from the bedroom to the bathroom. Lisa threw her back out, and writhed in pain for days on end.

Lisa Teng | Caregiver Dementia

However sacrificial the nature of the work is, caregiving has imbued Lisa with a deeper appreciation of life. “One of my patients who has dementia shared with me how much she admired me for being able to perform so many tasks on my own. I saw how much she longed to be independent. And I realised: I have a family, a home and my health. That’s all I need to be happy in life.”

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I do sometimes regret not being there for my mother. Now, I see my job as a privilege, and I feel blessed that I can be a caregiver. Thanks to this job, I’ve learnt humility and patience. Every household that I go to, the love that I give is multiplied and given back to me.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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