Heart recipients (from left) Pek Xue Qian, Rahman Abdullah and Chua Kok Hin are among 27 Singaporeans leading normal lives after the procedure. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF NATIONAL HEART CENTRE SINGAPORE

Mr Chua Kok Hin works six days a week as a cleaner at Changi Airport. He plays table tennis twice a week for two hours each time, and has won prizes for it.

All this was made possible after he got a new heart 16 years ago. 'I feel good. Previously, I could not work. Now I'm happy to have a job,' said the 66-year-old, married, with three grown-up children.

Yesterday, he was one of three people who shared personal stories at the National Heart Centre Singapore's (NHCS) heart transplant programme's 20th-anniversary celebration, held at the Singapore Flyer.

The first heart transplant was successfully done on July 6, 1990. To date, doctors have carried out 48 such operations.

Mr Chua is one of 27 Singaporeans leading relatively normal lives after the procedure. The longest surviving patient has lived for 19 years.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans in need of a new heart are more likely to get one now, said NHCS.

Last year, it carried out five heart transplants, more than double the number six years ago.

Now, the centre performs an average of four operations a year.

Dr Lim Chong Hee, director of the heart and lung transplant programme, attributed this to the relaxation of the Human Organ Transplant Act (Hota) in 2004.

The Act now allows for the harvesting of not just kidneys, but also livers, corneas and hearts, and from all causes of death.

'It increases the donor pool for us as long as people don't opt out. Previously, it was an opt-in scheme and that did not work so well because fewer people came forth,' he said.

Twenty years ago, 46 per cent of patients who had a heart transplant could live up to 10 years. Today, the figure is 52 per cent.

Dr Lim noted that patients now face less risk in terms of complications and rejection of the new heart. They can also live longer due to better medical care, drugs and technology.

Cardiovascular disease is the second biggest killer in Singapore, accounting for 28.4 per cent of the total number of deaths. It claims about 5,000 lives yearly.

For now, insufficient organs to meet demand is one big hurdle the NHCS is facing. Dr Lim hopes that one day, artificial hearts can replace the need for transplants.

He added that as the population gets older, heart failure will be a bigger problem. Still, he is optimistic.

'I hope that public knowledge of heart health will improve and that people will take care of themselves better,' he said.

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