The dancer who tangoed with diabetes, and almost lost the world he'd built

The dancer who tangoed with diabetes, and almost lost the world he'd built

Hooked on bubble tea, he ended up in hospital after delaying treatment for a foot ulcer. Gerard Raj had never thought the chronic disease would affect him, until faced with the threat of amputation.

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As a dancer, he never thought he'd get diabetes - and when it happened, he didn't take it seriously. Until it almost took away what he loved doing most in life.

SINGAPORE: He used to drink seven bubble teas a day, paced out every two hours on average. If he returned home at night, and there wasn’t that seventh bubble tea in his fridge, he would be “so mad”.

“I’m not kidding … That’s how bad it was,” said Mr Gerard Sebastian Raj.

That was not the only reason he ended up in hospital recently. A type 2 diabetes sufferer for three years, he began treatment only at the start of this year but skipped his medicine when he had “no time to be consistent with (his) meals”.

When he discovered an ulcer on the little toe of his left foot, his sister told him to have it checked. Mr Raj, a dancer, choreographer and instructor, procrastinated.

With that, he had put his career - which included working with celebrities like Anita Sarawak, Aaron Kwok and Andy Lau as well as co-choreographing Singapore’s bid for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games - on the line.

Amputation had become a possibility. 

DANCE GAVE HIM SO MUCH

Dancing had started out as a hobby but “took on a life of its own”, shared Mr Raj, who is in his 40s, on an On The Red Dot episode about Singaporeans living with diabetes. (Watch the episode here.)

“Like what people say, I dance as if no one’s watching… because it’s such a great stress relief,” he said. “You’re in a world of your own, and everybody needs that."

Mr Raj co-founded a performing arts troupe, D’Artistes, for mainly children with special needs and their siblings.

“When you dance, it’s with passion, it’s with energy, and energy is a driving force for everything," he added.

At the Television Corporation of Singapore, Mediacorp’s predecessor, he choreographed dances for English, Malay and Chinese audiences. He also managed the cast for Disney’s High School Musical Summer Tour at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

As a trainer, he works with little children up to junior college students. “In this day and age, it’s vital to connect with teenagers,” he enthused. And to connect with them, Mr Raj, who started with dances such as ballet, Broadway and tap dance, has gone into hip-hop, K-pop and Bollywood numbers.

“(Dance) is all-encompassing,” he said. “It brings people together. And that’s my main aim.”


One of the most favourite connections he has made in his career began in 2005. With a group of “very dedicated” parents, he co-founded a performing arts troupe, D’Artistes, comprising mainly children with Down’s syndrome and autism, and their siblings.

“We knew that there was this gap … for dance classes to be given to children with special needs,” explained Mr Raj, who is single.

Dance had given me so much, I just wanted to do something to give back to society … (It) turned out to be bigger than I could have ever imagined.

The group, which has around 20 members, is now a charity with Institution of a Public Character status. They average two to three shows monthly and do their own biennial showcase. “They really can dance,” Mr Raj avers.

This whole world threatened to come crashing down when diabetes left him with a calling card.

A SILENT KILLER

One-third of Singaporeans have a lifetime risk of getting the disease. But as a dancer, Mr Raj thought it would never affect him because he was “so healthy that there couldn’t be anything wrong”.

“I felt superb. There was no feeling of weakness or whatever. I just went on as usual, either training or choreographing or even performing in some of my events,” recalled Mr Raj, who is also an events planner.

He admits that he was asleep at the wheel on diabetes, “a silent killer”.

He kept applying plasters to the ulcer on his toe because he thought it was “just a wound”. He reasoned to himself: “I didn’t fall. I didn’t bang into any dancer. I didn’t cut myself.”

Watch: How he almost lost it all (3:26)


But it got increasingly worse, so he got his general practitioner, who was treating him for his diabetes, to dress the wound. After that did not work, the doctor told him to see a podiatrist.

When he finally had his appointment, there was a “gaping hole” – a 1.5 centimetre gap – in his toe. “The moment the podiatrist saw my wound, he said, ‘You have to check yourself into the hospital’,” Mr Raj recounted.

He went into hospital in early September and was warded immediately. It dawned on him that the situation was serious. And what came next was “very painful” for him to hear as a dancer: The surgeon’s advice was to amputate.

When I heard that my diabetes was so bad that my toe had to be amputated, and that was at the very least, I wasn’t angry, but I was very disappointed with myself.

It could have meant hanging up his dancing shoes forever.

The wound on his toe then.

HOLDING ON TO HOPE

He resolved to “stop being ignorant” and “passive”, and to bone up on options that might save his career. Amputation was not one of them, he told the doctors.

He went online to find solutions and talk to people who have had experience with diabetes. Then he learnt about oxygen-rich water therapy.

While some diabetic patients are known to drink oxygen-rich water to manage their condition, this was not the only thing that interested him. With the water therapy, patients are immersed in a tub for 50 minutes each time.

It is meant to treat diabetic foot wounds, though clinical trials are still ongoing. “I thought I’d give it a go because… there was nothing to lose,” says Mr Raj.

The first time he went for this water therapy, after he came out of the tub, there was “blood all over the mat” from his wound. It shocked him.

Holding on to hope, he kept going for two weeks and started his second therapy cycle. The results have been “startling”, he describes, as the hole in his toe has “totally closed up”.

The surrounding skin, which had been blackish, is healing, and there is no need for an amputation. “I’m really glad that I had this option, that I took this option,” he says with relief.

The healing wound now.

He is one of the lucky ones. Singapore has one of the world’s highest rates of lower limb amputations owing to diabetes. An average of nearly four amputations take place daily.

About a fifth of diabetics develop foot ulcers. Many do not seek treatment early, unaware of the risk they are taking, as 85 per cent of major amputations are preceded by such ulcers.

EASING HIS WAY BACK

Mr Raj’s condition put a brake on his dancing for nearly two months. In his first two sessions back with D’Artistes, he could not wear his dance shoes and was in slippers instead.

On his third session, he decided to give them a try. “I was really happy that I was able to even put on (my) dance shoes and really train the kids,” he exulted.

Of his hiatus, he said: “It sounds like a short time, but to me it’s an eternity… To be able to teach, to be able to just share (my) knowledge and talent is what I’ve always dreamed of.

Some people say, ‘Oh, so dance is your work?’ No, dance is my passion. I don’t think I’ve ever worked a single day in my life… I love every moment of it, so can you imagine when I was in hospital?

He had spent that time in “quiet reflection”, something he needed. He did not tell his friends he had been hospitalised nor even his mother, as he did not want to worry her.

His friends found out “in dribs and drabs” later. “They were a little bit mad at me for not telling them,” he admitted, referring particularly to those whom he has known since their days in the National University of Singapore’s Kent Ridge Hall.'

Mr Raj and his mother, who also has Type 2 diabetes, eating a meal of quinoa, which makes up his new diet.

A NEW GERARD

The support from his family and friends has since been “tremendous” as he adapts to his new lifestyle, which includes exercising with his mum and a change in diet.

“Because of all the lessons learnt, there’s a new Gerard,” he said, citing the fact that he cooks his own nutritious breakfast like quinoa, which was so tasteless the first time he prepared it that he “couldn’t even go through half a bowl”.

“I'm now with a renewed hope. I work healthily, I eat healthily, and most important of all, I'm getting back my energy. And it's just been amazing because the new Gerard has thrown away the habits of the old Gerard.”

Celebrating Deepavali with friends, with a low-sugar cake.

His friends will be sure to remind him of it. At a recent Deepavali gathering, they sang a song for him:

Seven bubble teas give me diabetes

Seven bubble teas make one sickly me

To which Mr Raj said: “If I was at the hospital at that time, I’d have been so angry. But look, it’s… like a slogan of my life.”

Watch how three profiles grapple with living with diabetes, on the full episode of On The Red Dot here.

The friends who came up with the song, 'Seven bubble teas'.

Source: CNA/yv

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