More than 280 Singapore General Hospital (SGH) staff, patients, family and friends took part in Swim for Rheumatology! 2018, clocking up nearly 7,500 laps and raising $106,000 for medical research. Among the spectators was Ms Haslina Wannor, who knows only too well the difference research can make to patients’ lives.

Walking up a dozen shallow steps from the pool side to a quiet room left Ms Haslina breathless.   But it wasn’t going to stop the petite 38 year old from sharing her experience of living with a rare autoimmune disease and her passion for supporting medical research.

Ms Haslina suffers from systemic sclerosis, which is also known as scleroderma, a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and affects large areas of skin, blood vessels and internal organs.   She first realised something was wrong in 2007, when she started to feel breathless, lost weight and the skin on her hands and face felt tight.

Specialists at the Department of Rheumatology and Immunology, SGH, diagnosed Ms Haslina with scleroderma.   They could only give her medication to suppress her immune system to reduce the damage it was causing, because there is no cure for the disease.   Unfortunately, Ms Haslina’s condition worsened, and by 2012 she was unable to do simple household chores that most of us take for granted.

“My breathing was very bad because my lung capacity was only 20 per cent of what it should be.   I had to use oxygen 24 hours a day and I tired easily.   I felt bad because my daughter, Aqilah, was only seven at the time and I had to rely on her to hang the washing, cook rice and wash the dishes because I didn’t have the energy and my hands blister when they are in water for long periods.” 
- Ms Haslina Wannor

Given the severity of Ms Haslina’s condition, her specialists recommended an autologous stem cell transplant to help restore her immune system.   Ms Haslina was the first in Singapore to undergo this treatment for scleroderma.

Stem cells are cells that have the ability to develop into a variety of different specialised cells in the body.   The treatment involved taking blood from Ms Haslina and harvesting the stem cells. She was then given chemotherapy to suppress the ‘over active’ immune cells in her blood and the stem cells were then transfused back into her blood stream to build a new and healthy immune system. It was like pressing the “restart” button on her immune system.

Ms Haslina was isolated in hospital for three weeks after the stem cell transplant to minimise the risk of infection.   About one month after discharge, she began to feel the benefits of the treatment.

“My skin stopped tightening and my breathing improved greatly. I didn’t need to use oxygen anymore and I was able to do much more around the home, so my daughter could enjoy being a child and we could go out together. We even managed to go to Kuala Lumpur for a weekend.”

Ms Haslina enjoyed better health for five years but at the start of 2018, the breathlessness returned.   The scleroderma had caused thickening of the blood vessels in her lungs, reducing blood flow, increasing pressure and forcing her heart to work harder to pump blood to the lungs.   She is now taking medication to open up the blood vessels to improve blood flow and although it helps, Ms Haslina gets breathless easily and uses oxygen at home for a couple of hours every day.

Despite her health challenges, Ms Haslina remains positive, setting up the Facebook page Sclerowarriorsg to raise awareness about scleroderma and to help others who have the condition. 

“I want to give back to society for the help and care I’ve received over the years, that’s why I share my experience with others, volunteer as a case study for medical examinations and take part in clinical trials. Research is the only hope for a cure, and I hope the findings from the trials will make a difference to the lives of future patients.”
Ms Haslina Wannor

Ms Haslina is especially grateful to her daughter for her unwavering support throughout her illness.   Aqilah is now 13 years old and she has much of her mother’s strength and resilience.   She overcame her nerves to join the SGH senior management team at Swim for Rheumatology! 2018 which was held on 15 September at Methodist Girls’ School.

Sitting by the side of the pool, Ms Haslina watched as Aqilah took to the water to raise funds for rheumatology research. Although Ms Haslina didn’t have the breath to shout words of encouragement, the mother’s pride at seeing her daughter do her part spoke louder than any cheer in the crowd.