SINGAPORE – Unlike some children his age, 11-year-old Gerome Tay really wanted to sit the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) this year.
Having missed 18 months of school because of medical reasons, he could have been exempted from school exams or taken the option to sit the national exam next year. But Gerome, who turns 12 on Jan 1 next year, was determined to have a “normal” school journey with his friends.
On Thursday (Nov 21), Gerome was one of 40,256 pupils across Singapore who returned to their primary schools to receive their PSLE results.
For him, the journey was especially challenging. The Ai Tong School pupil was diagnosed with lymphoma in July 2017 when he was in Primary 4.
It was all very sudden, said his mother, Mrs Sylvia Tay.
“He used to be a very healthy, athletic boy who hardly fell ill, not even the flu. But at the time, he was suddenly down with intermittent stomach pain for a week or so and we found it very strange,” said Mrs Tay, 39, who runs a music company.
Gerome is the second of her four children.
The family thought it was either a gastric problem or appendicitis, and took him to KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
Some fluid had collected in the lung area and doctors decided it was best to operate the very next day.
Mrs Tay called up Gerome’s teacher, Madam Yap Joo Koon, to inform her that he would have to miss a few days of school. A few days turned into months, and eventually, 18 months.
Gerome was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the immune system.
The chemotherapy he received affected his already weakened immune system. Going to school would have increased the chances of him catching a bug.
He also had to stop his co-curricular activity, Wushu, as it was too strenuous.
At home, he had to don a medical mask. A fever, even a slight one, would mean at least five days in the hospital.
During the treatment, he lost his hair, which was a big struggle for him and the family.
Said Mrs Tay: “He would wake up and find hair on the bed and he would be so shy and embarrassed because he thought he was making a mess. I had to reassure him every day that it was alright, and eventually he chose to shave it all of.”
Gerome only returned to school at the start of this year, but even after such a long absence, he did well. For example, he scored 97 in maths preliminary exams.
Asked how he managed to achieve that, he said: “I studied in hospital whenever I wasn’t resting. Even though I was sick, I didn’t see myself as different from other people.
“They said I could be exempted from school exams but I wanted to sit them to know how far behind I was.”
He also thanked Madam Yap, his Maths teacher from Ai Tong: “She really cares about me. She came to visit me every week, either in the hospital or at my home, to give me extra lessons. She also helped me in English and Science.”
Mrs Tay said the experience has given her a new perspective.
“Whether he gets 100 or 200 for the PSLE, who cares. As long as he’s happy and living well, which secondary school he goes to doesn’t matter,” she said.
“While some people might say, ‘Why are we so unlucky?’, I choose to see it a different way. Gerome has really matured from this experience, so maybe it is a blessing in disguise.”
He is now in remission and goes to the hospital every two weeks for a review and blood test. Next April, the frequency will be reduced to once a month.
“It has been very painful. But it has made me stronger,” said Gerome.