Friday, January 8, 2010

Finding Light In A Black Hole

Thursday, December 10, 2009

One man's journey to rediscover his passion for golf and opening the door to others like him

Walking into the quiet terrace of the Kundang Lakes Golf Club, I immediately recognise Yam Tong Woo from our previous meeting during the National Council for the Blind White Cane Day Golf Event. As it is custom with blind people, I greet him with a slight touch on his arm. We shake hands and I ask him "How's golf?" He replies with a big smile . Yam may not be the first blind golfer in Malaysia but there is no denying the role he has played in introducing golf to the blind here. Organizing the first full-fledged blind golf event in our shores, he has opened doors that many would never have imagined.

If you are wondering, Yam wasn't born blind. He is relatively a new member to the blind community here; a cruel twist of fate robbing his sight two years ago. As if it was only yesterday, events of January 2008 remain fresh in Yam's mind. Then based in Kunming, China, the automotive engineer specializing in heavy industrial machinery had thought little of the fever he had contracted. Little did he realize that it was the start of a journey that a reasonable man would not have imagined; a life without sight.

"It was a few days after New Year celebration. I had high fever and sought treatment in a private clinic. The next day, I started having eye discomfort and got admitted into a private hospital. Slowly, my eyesight began to blur," relates Yam. "After a week of treatment there (Kunming), I was transferred back to a hospital here in Penang. Operations and treatments did not help to save my sight. Soon, I was declared to be irreversibly blind," adds Yam, recalling the traumatic period of his life.

A bacterial infection, to be exact, the water-borne Klebsiella bacteria not only left Yam blind but seriously affected his lung and liver functions, requiring him to undergo further operations and treatment. It took him almost an entire year to get back on his feet and in a way, learn to lead life again.

"Life is such that never in my wildest dream would I have given the slightest thought of this happening to me," says Yam. "I felt like I was plunged into outer space; a darkness enveloping me and not knowing what was out there. Isolation, helplessness and fear – a mixed bag of emotions; it was a shock beyond description. And my career came to a sudden stop. At 54, I was too young to be in this state," shares Yam, not disguising the tone of disappointment in his voice.

With his wife of three decades, Hong and his three children by his side, Yam began picking up the pieces of his life. Little did he realize at that moment, that it will give him the opportunity to help others like him. "I must admit that I begin questioning my purpose in life. I felt so depressed, angry and sad that I had become a burden to my family," reveals Yam. "My initial visit to the Malaysian Association for the Blinds (MAB) was to seek advice and counselling. Later on, I begin enrolling in their programmes, which empowered me to be independent."

First on his list to learn, was something that many of us take for granted but which is essentially synonymous with the blind: the white cane. Yam admits that learning to use the cane has done him a tonne of good. "The white cane is clearly an essential mobility tool to me now and I cannot leave home without it now, explains Yam." He is not shy to share his misadventures with picking up Braille though. "I am still trying to learn it. The sense of touch and feel at my age is not as sensitive as it was during my youth obviously. So, I would need a lot of practise and guidance to master it."
But if there is something that Yam admits has allowed him to lead a normal lifestyle is being able to use computer. With a special screen-reader software, Yam is able to communicate via email and access the internet just like any other person. (Note: This entire interview was arranged by email after our first meeting.) "He's even better at typing than me and my, can he sms!" exclaims Hong, who was also present during this interview. Yam wears a watch and before I could jump the gun and ask the question, he is quick to point out that "the watch talks."

We turn to a topic that immediately brightens Yam's face and which he is passionately pursuing now: golf; in particular, blind golf. A social golfer since 1994, Yam was initially pulled into the auld game by his peers back then. Playing off a handicap of 22, he joined the Kundang Lakes, which was located a short drive away from his home in Kuang, Rawang. The inevitable question to ask him was what pushed him to pick-up golf again?

"After losing sight, I became sedentary. I tried jogging which I used to do with my dogs but I didn't find it enjoyable. My sons urged me to go to the driving range to try hitting some balls," states Yam. "But, I felt embarrassed. How would people react; I have grown to know the staff at the club so well. So, I called the club manager and told him about my situation. He said "I was ever so welcome to come back." And so, I forced myself to overcome that mental barrier."

His first swing was a poignant moment for Yam "I stood there on the driving range, the same spot that I have stood many times before. Except now, all I could see was darkness," he says, reminiscing that nostalgic moment. When asked to describe his golf now in his own words, Yam explains "It's very different. I need a sighted guide to help me assess the terrain and distance as well as the position of the ball, club face, pin and myself."

"The rest is dependent on your own feel and judgement. The icing on the cake is hearing a good contact sound of the club striking the ball. There is always a lapse of silence, seconds of anxious waiting after hitting the ball; unlike previously, when I can focus on the flying ball for a few seconds," says Yam.

Of course, he is the first to admit that he has been forced to adapt his way of playing golf. "Being dependent on a sighted guide, you need to be patient and very importantly, trust the advice given. There's really no two-way about it," says Yam. With either his wife or sons guiding him these days, Yam is planning to gather his old golfing kakis for a round. Rather reservedly Yam says "It's not that they deserted me or anything. Perhaps, they don't know how to handle me or they think I may not be interested."

"But there is a hard fact of life that I must share. People look at me as just another blind individual. It is automatic.

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