S’porean with multiple heart defects still served NS, coached kids in debate, journeyed with friends
Most guys would have taken the opportunity to chao keng.
If the measure of a life is not by length of years, but what you’ve done with them, then 25-year-old Daniel Selvakumar led a full one.
Born with multiple heart defects, Daniel was given a life expectancy of just five years. As a 14-month-old baby, he went through open-heart surgery that involved surgeons cutting open his ribcage, a procedure fraught with risk.
But Daniel survived. And until his death in 2015, two weeks before his 25th birthday, he was determined to show that people with medical conditions could contribute to society just like anyone else.
Living with a condition
Daniel suffered from multiple heart defects that were collectively referred to as Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF).
This condition received some attention in the media last year, when American comedian and talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel shared that his son William was also born with it.
People with TOF can lead healthy lives after childhood surgery, but may need further operations later on.
Daniel’s own initial operation as an infant was a success, but a lung infection left him hooked up to a breathing machine for more than two days. Although he recovered, his heart pumped at only 20 per cent capacity.
Daniel attended school and loved to play football. But he opted to play solely as a striker, as they don’t have to run as much.
He made sure to pace himself in every match, even passing up chances to score if it meant over-exerting himself. Luckily, his friends were understanding.
Unfortunately, there was at least one incident where he pushed himself too hard on the pitch, and had to be taken to hospital.
Refused to skip NS
Before he enlisted for National Service, Daniel’s cardiologist offered to write him a letter that would exempt him from serving entirely.
But unlike most of us who might otherwise welcome the chance to do so, he refused.
Thinking of his future, Daniel believed that no employer would offer him a job out of concerns for his health, if he wasn’t willing or able to serve NS at even the lowest PES level.
Daniel spent five and a half days on Pulau Tekong for Basic Military Training, and then served as a Security Trooper at Changi Naval Base in the Republic of Singapore Navy.
During his time in the Navy, Daniel was as active as possible.
He participated in security operations for military and political visits of VIPs, and public events like the Navy Open House.
A passion for debating
While in Anglican High, he joined the debate team. He enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of debate so much that he also joined the team in Tampines JC.
He compared it to football. Just like the sport, debate involves manoeuvring past your opponent with skill, strategy and a little luck.
Just participating wasn’t enough for Daniel, though, so he also started coaching secondary school kids in debate.
One of the teams he coached, Kent Ridge Secondary School, was an unheralded one that participated in the division school debate competition for the very first time the year he started working with them.
But with Daniel’s guidance and dedicated coaching, Kent Ridge made it all the way to the division finals — a great achievement for a debutant team.
Started a business for primary schoolers
Seeing how the kids gained confidence during their debates gave Daniel the idea for a business he called Thinkers’ Circle.
He envisioned a company that specialised in debate coaching for primary school students — a novel concept because debate clubs typically only existed at secondary school level and higher.
Instead of preparing for competitions, Daniel wanted to focus more on teaching critical thinking and public speaking skills, which he hoped would boost children’s self-confidence as they developed them.
Although the project had altruistic intentions, Daniel hoped it would also help his financial situation.
He knew that his medical bills were expensive, and if the company succeeded he could relieve some of the financial burden on his family.
And if a cure for his condition was developed in the future, he wanted to be able to afford the treatment.
Daniel started the company with an NS buddy, and carried on after their ORD. Thinkers’ Circle would go on to run debate courses and programmes in a number of primary schools between June 2012 when he started it and end-2013.
His passion for debate also drove him to volunteer with the Singapore Debate Association.
As Director (Training), he was in charge of all training programmes initiated by the organisation for the local debating community.
But that wasn’t the only volunteer work he did.
As a young boy, Daniel and his family attended a number of camps organised by Club Rainbow — a nonprofit in Singapore that hosts programmes for chronically ill children.
Daniel had fond memories of attending Club Rainbow events with his family. Fun aside, they made him realise he could still be active and play sports as long as he managed himself carefully, even with TOF.
When he turned 16 and too old to participate in the camps anymore, Daniel signed up for Club Rainbow’s Youth Committee, which organised games and events for the younger kids, as his way of giving back.
Yet, amid all that he was busy with, Daniel still found time to help and journey with a friend.
His Tampines JC and Singapore Management University social science course mate Shafiq had become addicted to drugs. But when Daniel found out about it, all he said to Shafiq was:
“Whenever you feel like getting high, just give me a call instead.”
Sure enough, whenever Shafiq called Daniel, he would come and hang out with him at a coffee shop. They would spend hours just chatting.
Despite his poor health, Daniel would also hang out with Shafiq till the wee hours of the morning at clubs, making sure his friend wouldn’t have a chance to consume drugs as long as he was with him.
Shafiq would eventually recover from and overcome his addiction, and also graduate from a university in Australia, which he later transferred to.
He thanked Daniel for helping him on his road to recovery. But Daniel didn’t feel like he had done anything special. To him, all he did was just to be there for a friend.
But more medical problems would hit
But in 2013, between his second and third year at SMU, Daniel experienced further afflictions to his health.
In May that year, he went through a major surgery to replace a pulmonary valve and repair a vein.
He spent four days in the Intensive Care Unit, with tubes running out of either side of his torso. The new valve was expected to work fine until he was about 50 years old.
But some weeks after he was discharged, Daniel found that his feet would get sore and swell up. Initially thinking it was a complication from the surgery, he checked himself back into hospital for a new course of diuretics, but he then suffered from repeated fevers.
Partly due to the deterioration of his health, Daniel was forced to wind down Thinkers’ Circle that year as his friends were not able to help him continue it.
It was only after he collapsed at ZoukOut in 2014 that Daniel’s doctors eventually determined his complications arose from cumulative scar tissue from his surgeries over the years.
These, they theorised, ended up putting further strain on his already poorer-functioning heart.
Sadly, this would only get worse. Daniel would move in and out of the hospital in the year that followed — his condition deteriorated, and his kidneys malfunctioned.
He eventually died in October 2015, two weeks shy of his 25th birthday, but the sheer number of friends and visitors at his bedside at that moment was a testament to the number of lives he had touched.
Daniel’s story is told in the book Stay Gold by Clara Lock, a local freelance writer. Lock dated Daniel after they met in TPJC. They would later part ways romantically, but remained close friends.
The book is available at all major bookstores, including Time, Popular, and Kinokuniya.
Top image courtesy of Clara Lock.