Born with four heart defects, Daniel Selvakumar was not expected to live beyond five years old. Just 14 months after he was born, doctors cut open his rib cage to perform a risky open-heart surgery in a bid to prolong his life. He survived, but still, the doctors weren’t confident he could live long. Every single day could be his last.
But Daniel grew up, determined to live like any other normal person. He dated and found love, served National Service (NS) when he didn’t have to, started a successful business, and enrolled in Singapore Management University (SMU).
He helped a friend to overcome his drug addiction, and coached students from neighbourhood schools. He did all these and more — before succumbing to death just two weeks before what would be his 25th birthday. This was in 2015.
His first love and ex-girlfriend Clara Lock spent the next two years, writing a book tell his life story.
Titled Stay Gold: An Almost Healthy Boy in a Mostly Healthy Word , the 217-page biography will be launched today afternoon at SMU.
“The reason why I think his story was remarkable and worth writing a book about, is that even though he had all these problems, he remained upbeat and was always there for his friends,” said the 28-year-old freelance writer.
“He knew that his time was finite; every day could be his last. But for the rest of us, we live as though we are going to live until we are 80 years old. We have time to retire and go for holiday, but Daniel didn’t.
“So the things that he wanted to do — whether it’s running a business, being there for his friends, coaching or inspiring people — he would just do it.”
A girl got together with a guy even though he’s likely to die young. They broke up. He passed on in his 20s. She wrote a book to tell his life story.
It’s been a long while since I come across such a touching story. When Clara, my ex-colleague, told me about her upcoming book, I told myself I had to tell her story on my Happiness Notebook. Over coffee at Yakun @ Safra, Clara told me all about Daniel and her.
Found courage to love
They were classmates in Tampines Junior College, and also each other’s first love.
Daniel had told Clara about his condition before they got together. When he was in secondary school, he used to think that he should never fall in love because of his heart condition. It wouldn’t be fair to the girl if something happened to him.
“That made an impact on me,” said Clara.
“I always saw him as a normal guy; he played soccer and we did theatre together. But actually he had a condition that impacted every single day of his life from his school work to career to whether he would enter a relationship or not.”
When Clara entered his life, Daniel found the courage to love.
“We talked about our future, marriage and lives together in a very idealistic way of people who have never had their hearts broken: Where shall we have our honeymoon? What shall we have for our pets?,” said Clara.
“I told Daniel I wanted to be a freelance writer. And he said, ‘If you want to be a freelance writer, then I will try to find a job that pays a bit better so that we can afford that.'”
They dated for five and half years.
They broke up before he was due for another open-heart surgery. His heart was then showing signs of severe decline.
“He recognised that the surgery was inherently risky. What if that was the end of his life? He didn’t want to fix a ‘lukewarm’ relationship, while trying to reconcile his own mortality at the same time,”said Clara.
Clara described their relationship as one that was “moving along fine”, “very stable” but “lukewarm”.
Daniel was then a second-year student in SMU, while she had just graduated from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
Although Clara maintained that they separated because “they were at different stages of their lives,” you can’t help but to suspect that Daniel had ended the relationship because he did not want to be a burden for her.
They remained each other’s best friends after the break up, keeping in touch constantly.
If Daniel’s surgery went well, he could live till to his 50s. But signs of heart failure started showing eight months after the surgery; his liver and kidney also suffered damage.
Doctors had to put him on dialysis, and give him a “strong” cocktail of pills to keep his heart beating.
He later caught an infection, and there was no hope for recovery as his organs were badly battered. Even if he overcame the infection, his heart was not going to be able to beat on its own.
His parents made the decision to let him go on a Friday in 2015.
The next day afternoon, over 20 family members and friends gathered at the National University Hospital where Daniel was warded. He was not conscious, his eyes closed. The mood in the cardiac care room was sombre, but there was a sense of togetherness among those present.
The doctor stopped his heart medication, and the reading on the heart rate monitor started dropping.
“As Daniel’s heart rate hit 20, his father reached out to cup his wife’s cheek. It reached nine, and his mother stroked Daniel’s hair. ‘Go,’ she said, kissing his forehead. ‘It’s okay, please go.’” Clara described the scene in her book.
“They knew that this was Daniel would have wanted. He wouldn’t want to lie there, incapable of doing stuffs on his own,” she said.'”
When Daniel was alive, he didn’t want to be seen as not healthy, said Clara. He refused to be exempted from NS.
“At that point, I told him, ‘Why do you want to do NS when we could go to university together?’
“But he said, ‘There will be a huge question mark when I find jobs in future. If I am not even healthy enough to do NS — even in a support or service role — then how can the bosses have faith that I am healthy enough to serve the company.’”
Inspiring young minds
Daniel served his NS at the Changi Naval Base pass office. During those two years, he also started a company with his friends to coach primary kids in debating.
A school debater, Daniel also coached students. But he preferred to train students from neighbourhood schools, turning down better-paying offers from elite schools.
One of his achievements was to lead Kent Ridge secondary school’s first ever debating team to second place in the national age-group competition.
After making a difference for the Kent Ridge debating team, Daniel thought, why not bring debating to the masses?
So he and his friends started a programme for primary school pupils as there were no debating teams in primary schools. They managed to clinch a few projects, even though they were 19-year-olds who hadn’t even gone to university.
Being there for friends
Daniel once helped his friend to overcome drug addiction. Nothing dramatic, he didn’t save him from an overdose.
He was just there for him; they spent many evening together, to drink teh peng and talk. It was on a simple basis that well if his friend is with him, he cannot be taking drugs at the same time.
His friend eventually kicked off his addiction to ice, and went on to complete his university education.
“We always say we will be there for our friends, but to be there for our friends, day in day out, to give up so much of your own things that you could be doing, especially when your own health was a question mark, it’s actually quite tough,” said Clara.
The idea for writing his biography came about when one day Daniel suggested Clara, an aspiring author, to write her own book.
And Clara responded: “Why don’t I write about you? Your life is remarkable — I mean you are not supposed to be alive now!”
Daniel agreed. He hoped that through his story, people could see that even sick people can make meaningful contributions to society.
After the discussion, Clara planned to write the book after her trip to Nepal. She had just left her job, and wanted a break. But when she was away, Daniel caught an infection which his body struggled to fight off.
“No one knew that his condition would take a turn for the worse when I was away,” said Clara.
After he passed on, she wrote the book largely based on her memories with Daniel. Interviews with his parents and friends were conducted to fill in the missing pieces.
“When I was writing the book, it was overwhelming. But this was what Daniel wanted, he could no longer see it through on his own, plus I already promised him, so I must do it.
“When someone is a big part of your life, when you love someone for so long — he was my first boyfriend and we were each other’s first love — this person will always be, in a way, family to you,” said Clara, who’s currently attached.
Daniel’s story asks how an almost healthy boy can find his place in a mostly healthy world, and how a single life can be meaningful when time is running out. You can pick up a copy of Stay Gold (retails for $19.90) at Popular, Kinokuniya, and Times bookstores.