Avid sportswoman refuses to be sidelined by rheumatoid arthritis. By Kua Chee Siong
Ms Shuhadah getting tackled by one of the boys from the rugby team of Catholic Junior College during a friendly match with the National Women's Rugby Sevens Team at the Yio Chu Kang stadium. Photos: Kua Chee Siong
Stuck on the white walls of her bedroom are some of avid sportswoman Nur Shuhadah Mohamed Abdul Gaffoor's favourite motivational quotes.
One of them reads: "What hurts you today, makes you stronger tomorrow."
It is a saying that the 24-year-old, who works as an executive manager at the Building and Construction Authority, knows only too well.
She was 17 when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a form of arthritis caused by inflammation of the joints, leading to painful and swollen joints.
If not treated, this autoimmune disease can lead to joints becoming eroded and deformed.
Contrary to common myth that arthritis is a disease of the elderly, this form usually affects people during their reproductive years of between 20 and 50.
Ms Nur Shuhadah Mohamed Abdul Gaffoor does a “bear crawl” during training. “On that particular day, my left wrist was painful and the joint felt stiff because there was a flare-up. I taped up my wrist for support but continued until the end,” she says.
Ms Shuhadah started having symptoms in her first year of junior college seven years ago.
Her wrists and fingers started to swell, then her knees, shoulder blades and ankles. Within two months, every major joint in her body had become swollen.
Ms Shuhadah breaks away from Malaysian opponents in the semi-finals of the SEA 7s competition for a try. “We were all looking forward to the game because it was the one that would put us into the finals. After the rain, the field was muddy and was not the most ideal of conditions to play in, but we still had to be focused on our tasks... Every tackle, every run, every catch and every pass is crucial,” she says.
Things became really serious when her joints swelled to about 11/2 times their normal size and walking became problematic.
The condition reduced the former school basketball player, who had been picked to represent Singapore in the Youth Olympic Games in 2009, to a shell of her former self. She could not even hold a pen or tie her shoelaces.
Ms Shuhadah and a teammate tap foreheads after the semi-final match of the SEA 7s competition against Malaysia, which Singapore won. Head coach Wang Shao Ing says: ”The gesture, coming after a training, a game or an intensive drill, is to express solidarity, to say ‘Well done’, ‘Good luck’, ‘I’m with you’ or ‘Let’s do it’."
"I had to relearn everything and my writing looked like a child's," said Ms Shuhadah.
She was devastated when her doctor told her to avoid all sports.
Back home, Ms Shuhadah wraps a hot towel around her left wrist after training. “I treat every small sign of flare-up so as not to let it get worse. My first choice is to have heat treatment, like a hot towel, to quickly reduce the swelling. Heat treatment is... the most effective because it increases the blood circulation,” she says.
"He told me that if I chose to pursue competitive sports, I must know that I would pay for it in future. That I would bear the pain when I got older and my joints got weaker," she said.
Unwilling to accept her fate, Ms Shuhadah decided it was a gamble she was willing to take.
Adjunct Associate Professor Law Weng Giap checks Ms Shuhadah’s left wrist for signs of inflammation and also its functional movements because she had complained of stiffness and pain about a month earlier. Ms Shuhadah has seen Prof Law since she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis about seven years ago. Now, she visits him once every three months.
The youngest of three children of an SMRT train officer and housewife, Ms Shuhadah had bad asthma as a small child and was not allowed to undergo strenuous physical activity. At the age of 10, her condition improved, and she fell in love with the sporting life.
"Sports is something in which you can see the outcome of hard work. I am happy when I can actually see changes and improvement in myself. It makes me want to play even more," she said.
Every day, Ms Shuhadah takes a cocktail of 4 1/2 pills. They include anti-inflammatory medication and supplements. She says: “In the initial two to three years, I took up to 10 tablets a day."
Support from her friends, coaches and family got her through the tough process of becoming used to the pain and enduring it while pursuing her passion.
For now, however, the tough years are behind her.
Adjunct Associate Professor Law Weng Giap, senior consultant in the department of rheumatology, allergy and immunology at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said it took about three years of treatment to get Ms Shuhadah's arthritis into complete remission.
"And due to early treatment, she does not have any joint deformity," said Prof Law. "If you see her now, you cannot even tell she has rheumatoid arthritis. Although the medications have certain potential side effects, we just have to monitor that regularly.
Ms Shuhadah with teammate Ong Pei Yi as they dip in ice baths for recovery after a game during the SEA Sevens competition at the Yio Chu Kang stadium.
"As long as we can keep her disease in remission, she should have a normal life like any of us."
From playing badminton in primary school and basketball in secondary school and junior college, Ms Shuhadah went on to pick up handball, soccer and touch rugby when she studied mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore.
The team during a video review session of an earlier match against the rugby boys from Catholic Junior College at the Yio Chu Kang Community Club as head coach of the national women's team, Wang Shao Ing (top right in red) watches over them.
She was spotted and recruited by the head coach of the national women's rugby team, Ms Wang Shao Ing, 40, and joined the national training squad as a winger in February last year.
A national Rugby Sevens player, she hopes to be selected for the upcoming 29th South-east Asia (SEA) Games held in Kuala Lumpur this August. There are 24 girls in the national training squad and 12 are picked for every competition.
Ms Shuhadah practising her kicks during training. As one of the kickers for the national women's team, she has to spend extra time practising drop kicks for kickoffs and conversions.
The team for the SEA Games will be selected by the end of next month.
Ms Wang said: "The girls all have full-time jobs and they give up their weekends because the squad trains full days and plays games to simulate tournament situations."
"When I wake up every morning, I always tell myself that I want to be better. I like to make the most of the 24 hours and be productive, making the most of the day. We have trainings every day and I want to be better every day. If there's no progress then I would feel that day is wasted," said Ms Shuhadah.
The team is preparing not only for the SEA Games, but also the Asian Sevens Series, to be held in September in South Korea and in October in Sri Lanka. Only the top eight countries in Asia play in that series.
Ms Shuhadah loves rugby because it is physically demanding and really tests one's limits.
"On top of the training that is required for us to do, I usually try to do extra trainings on my own. This is to strengthen my muscles further to prevent injury. Cycling is also my hobby and it also helps me to relax. I try to cycle or do extra runs at least once a week," said Ms Shuhadah.
She said: "Playing rugby gives me a great sense of satisfaction and fulfilment - to know that I can push myself more than I think I can.
"One of the reasons I took on more sports was that I know my time in sports is limited. I hate it when someone tells me I cannot do something. I will still do it."
"My condition is stable but not cured. If one day the condition deteriorates, I won't let it become a obstacle to force me not to do my best or go all out. It's a decision I have made so I've to bear the consequences," said Ms Shuhadah.
"And I always feel that if you decide to do something, just try your best. So that there are no regrets even if you fail."
Another quote on Ms Shuhadah's wall reads: "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."
Gym work is expected of all the players. "The strength and conditioning we do in the gym is not just about gaining functional strength and speed to meet the modern demands of the sevens game but is equally about injury prevention," said Wang Shao Ing, head coach of the national women's team.