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Madam Lau An Mei was only 32 when she suffered a mild stroke.
At that time, back in 1987, she was going through her second pregnancy and the stroke left the right half of her face paralysed.
She was forced to make a difficult decision: her baby or her looks.
Corrective surgery would cure her paralysis, but it could cause a miscarriage. She chose her unborn baby over surgery.
For years after the birth of her son, she endured curious looks and rude stares.
She felt shunned by strangers. She lost her confidence. Her self-esteem plunged.
Today, at 61, she is a changed person, having found gratification in helping others through volunteer work.
Even though half of her face remains paralysed, she has been volunteering with the People’s Association (PA) for the last eight years.
Opening up to The New Paper about what happened 29 years ago, Madam Lau said she was already a mother to a 10-year-old daughter when she discovered she was pregnant.
Seven months into her pregnancy, she suffered a stroke.
Madam Lau said in Mandarin: “I just had to have my son. It’s an obvious maternal choice (between your child and your looks).”
Her decision to not undergo the surgery came at a cost beyond her looks.
Because of the paralysis, she could not close her right eye fully, causing discomfort when she slept because of dust going into her eye.
In 2003, she had corrective surgery. Despite that, she still received strange looks from people.
She said: “People would also just stare at me. I felt that they were judging me based on my appearance, so I avoided mixing with people.”
Her son, Mr Desmond Lim, now 28, a business development associate, told TNP that he found out about his mother’s sacrifice when he was in his teens.
“I used to be very rebellious. One day, my sister told me what had happened and pointed out how much my mother had sacrificed for me. It was like a wake-up call and I became more obedient.”
Declining to reveal her occupation, Madam Lau said that after giving birth, she stopped work for about half a year. Even when she returned to the workforce, she chose to keep to herself.
“I didn’t have many friends. So my life revolved around going to work and going home. At home, I would just watch TV and cook,” she said.
“I would have loved to go out, but I found it difficult to meet people.
“Even my colleagues would sometimes give me strange looks so at work, I preferred to just stay quiet. I had very low self-esteem.”
A few years after the birth of her son, Madam Lau befriended Madam Daisy Lee, the co-owner of a grocery store she frequented.
Madam Lee, 61, now a retiree, is a PA volunteer who gives exercise classes targeted at the elderly.
Even though Madam Lau was very shy, she and Madam Lee became friends.
Madam Lau with Madam Daisy Lee, a People’s Association volunteer who befriended her and introduced her to volunteering.
Madam Lee said: “We have incredible chemistry together. We connect very well.
“I would teach her how to cook Western food and she would teach me to cook Chinese food.”
She gradually introduced Madam Lau to more people and her confidence grew.
But the one thing that really brought Madam Lau out of her shell was when Madam Lee introduced her to volunteering, about eight years ago.
Madam Lee even got her to help out with her exercise class.
Madam Lau said: “Initially, some people who took the class would question my abilities because of the way I looked.
“But Daisy would encourage me not to care and she would talk to those people (about it).”
Madam Lau is now an assistant instructor for Madam Lee’s classes. She helps with pre-class preparations and taking attendance.
She said: “By volunteering in these classes, I’ve met a lot more people. This has also helped me make friends at work.
“Daisy really broadened my world view. Without her, I would probably be at home all day.”
Madam Lee said of her friend: “I find that she has progressed a lot. She’s happier and a more positive person now.
“I even joke that during class, she’s too busy taking attendance to bother about her looks any more.”
A version of this story was originally published in The New Paper on 28 March 2016.