Debbie Kwan realizes her dream of attending university while battling systemic lupus erythematosus
Debbie Kwan, a candidate in the first Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE), was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus in Form Six; but through persistence in her studies on her sickbed, she was finally admitted to the Department of Counselling and Psychology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University after three tough attempts. Despite frequent challenges, Debbie’s impressive willpower to achieve her dreams promises her a career as a professional counsellor. Her latest milestone is the “Good Student” Annual Award from the Szeto Wah Education Fund.
When Debbie was busy preparing for the HKDSE in 2012, purple patches appeared on her feet and rashes blotched her body. She brushed off these alarming signs until she visited a doctor for a fever. She was initially diagnosed with common vasculitis in the emergency room and was prescribed ointments. This soon changed when the doctor learned that Debbie’s grandmother suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus and hence asked her to stay for a more detailed examination. Debbie was eventually diagnosed with the same disease as her grandmother. Since then, she has been struggling with symptoms such as fever, rashes, pulmonary embolism, nephritis, hepatitis and multiple infections. Brain cramps soon joined the list of illnesses that plagued her and she was also diagnosed with stiff-person syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects muscle control and hinders organs from performing optimally.
Retook the HKDSE for three times to actualize the university dream
Determined to further her studies in a university, Debbie retook the HKDSE three times as she fought her battles on the sickbed. After the first attempt, systemic lupus erythematosus consumed her brain and meddled with her cognitive functions, forcing her to take a gap year to recover. At that time, her pulmonary embolism worsened and her lungs partially collapsed. An oxygen machine was brought in to help her breathe. After her break, she resumed her studies in a private school but succumbed again to sickness after she retook the examination. In order to go for her third attempt, Debbie was rejected by many schools, yet she continued to pursue her dream in a night school.
Self-discipline is essential to thriving in night schools. Every morning, Debbie would complete a past paper, check the answers and jot down key points. After lunch, she would bury her head in books in a self-study room. After a quick dinner, she would hurry to night class from 6:45pm to 9:45pm and often stayed behind to engage in further discussions with the teachers. It would usually be midnight when she got home. After she woke up the next day, the busy schedule repeated. She was adhered to this exhausting daily routine for a long time.
On her third examination attempt, Debbie was diagnosed with nephritis and had to return to the hospital. With the hospital’s approval, she completed her HKDSE examination in the hospital under the supervision of a proctor assigned by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Fortunately, she received good grades and was finally enrolled in the Hong Kong Shue Yan University majoring in Counselling and Psychology.
Mother as her rock
While many pleaded her to prioritize her health over academia, Debbie took the HKDSE three times within six years, refusing to step back, as she realized her battle with her disease would be lifelong. “There is no cure for systemic lupus erythematosus. I will never truly live my life if I wait until a full recovery. I told myself, ‘You must persevere if you wish to go to college and never give up in chasing your dreams.’ Even in sickness, I have a powerful mind and wonderful dreams to pursue, and these are the motivators that kept me going. There were weary moments when I questioned whether my efforts would pay off. I was especially anxious when I was preparing for my third HKDSE. Fortunately, my mother has always been with me in overcoming these negative thoughts and difficult times. She is of great significance to me. What motivated me were her encouraging words like, ‘It is okay to have bad grades. Try again next time!’ She would visit me every day when I was admitted to the hospital. In the rare occasions that she could not make it, she would ask her friends to send me food and supplies to let me know that I am loved and missed. During times of extreme depression and when I wanted to isolate myself from the world, my mother gave me strength by staying home with me: we talked and sometimes we just enjoyed the silence together. Even when all of my relatives believed that retaking the exams would be too strenuous for my body, my mother supported my decision as she could read what her daughter wants. She knew I was determined to go to university, and she has been fully supportive the whole time.”
Studying Counselling and Psychology to help others and herself
Debbie wanted to become a nurse when she was little but soon realized that her troubled health could not fulfill its physically demanding job duties such as picking up and supporting patients. After discussing with her friends with the same illness, she decided to enroll in the Department of Counselling and Psychology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Debbie said, “I like to communicate with people, so this line of study really appeals to me. Psychology is very interesting as it dives into people’s needs and personalities; it trains us to help the needy alleviate deep-rooted emotional problems with our knowledge. My experience helps me better understand others’ negative emotions and the psychological issues they are facing.”
Debbie’s university studies were, too, met with obstacles. She was hospitalized again when she was in Year Three. Although she continued to work hard on assignments and projects, the school advised her to suspend her studies due to a high absence rate. At first, Debbie avoided the issue and pretended that she did not see the emails from the university. Later, a professor came to the hospital and brought the news, which caused her to burst into tears. “It really broke me when I thought of not being able to attend classes and graduate with my classmates. I had worked so hard but still had to defer my graduation! Of course, I understand that my health is very important and that nothing could be achieved without a healthy body. During that year of suspension, I signed up to be a guest speaker across a number of schools and developed my illustration work to enrich my life outside of academia.”
With only a few months left until her graduation, Debbie decided to continue down the path of psychological counselling while promoting her comic character, “Mr. Wolf”, a character symbolic of systemic lupus erythematosus to share her story and spread positive energy to those in need.
Debbie loves drawing. During her time at the hospital, the medical staff and her personal experiences became her muse. Each illustration in her diary came with a date and descriptions such as “a nurse who offered me food” and “what the doctor said”. She soon turned the illness that plagued her life into a comic character named “Mr. Wolf” (the name is a play on words: wolf in Cantonese is the same as one of the characters of the autoimmune disease). Mr. Wolf was published on a social media page. A related picture book and products were also launched for sale to the public. Debbie said, “This disease will stay with me for the rest of my life, so I must live with it. If I treat it as a disease, I will have a hard time, so why not see it as a comrade instead?” In her picture book, “Mr. Wolf” is far from an antagonist but an adorable character who empowers patients and readers.
~ Helena Hui