- During the 2003 health crisis, Chan’s Hong Kong Sports Institute’s teammates sent her a tape with words of encouragement, as well as a challenge
- Chan says it felt like she was being given her last rites when hospital staff urged her to call her loved ones on the day she was admitted
After five days in the intensive care unit, Maria Chan Siu-san's condition was worsening and doctors feared for her life. One of 1,755 people in Hong Kong struck by severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, the Hong Kong fencer seemed to lack the will to fight the killer disease.
One doctor assigned to her ward at the Princess Margaret Hospital was a fellow fencer, Fong Siu-yan. He wanted to lift Chan's spirits so he asked her fencing teammates at the Hong Kong Sports Institute to say some words of encouragement on a cassette tape.
Most of the comments were the usual "get well, soon!" or "Come on Hong Kong!". But there was one remark that startled her. It said: "The Maria Chan I know never gives up. You have to get better if you want to beat me because you've never beaten me before."
The voice was that of Connie Ho Ka-lai, Hong Kong's top women's epee specialist at the time and leader of the team. Chan's demeanour changed almost immediately.
"When I heard that, I thought, 'I know who this is', and I said to myself, 'hold on, I've beaten her at least twice before! What's she talking about?'"
That moment marked the beginning of her recovery from the disease that killed 813 people worldwide, including 299 in Hong Kong, and infected 8,437.
"It was like a miracle," said Chan, 46, who last week urged Hongkongers to take precautions against the new coronavirus outbreak. "From that day onwards, I started my comeback. It was a 180-degree turn. I had dived right down to the depths of despair and came right back up. I will never forget what my teammates did for me.
"I found out later that Ho was actually joking. She knew I had beaten her before but she just wanted to motivate me. Another comment asked me to get better soon so I can attend someone's wedding. Of course, they were not really getting married."
Chan, a two-time Asian Team Championship bronze medallist, was a resident of the notorious Amoy Gardens in Kowloon where a major localised outbreak of Sars occurred. She had been part of the HKSI full-time athlete programme for five years but Sars effectively ended her career at elite level.
Sars-surviving ex-Hong Kong fencer Maria Chan says she's no role model: 'Don't do what I did 17 years ago'
The steroid treatment she received to combat the disease caused problems in her hip, with the doctor saying she could still continue sports as long as she avoided stamping her foot on the ground " a key movement in fencing.
It took seven years before she could play again at a reasonable standard and she has since represented Hong Kong at veterans competitions.
Chan says her Sars experience had given her a new outlook on life and forced her to look deep within herself. She has now found her calling and works with a company that helps athletes pursue career opportunities after they retire.
A key word for Chan is "motivation", which is what she lacked when lying in that hospital bed 17 years ago, admitting that she thought it was the end for her. Indeed, when hospital staff asked her to call her loved ones "because you won't be able to use the phone for a while", she said it felt like she was being administered her last rites.
"I call my mum and cried, saying sorry for not being able to look after her. My hospital bed was right next to the window, looking out over Kwai Chung," said Chan. "I just looked out and said, 'Lord, I don't know what is happening, I feel so helpless. I have had a really fruitful, interesting and exciting life.
"I've been to the Asian Games, I was the first full-time women's fencer … so if you want to take my life back, it's OK. If this is the time, I'll follow your will. I will put my life in your hands.
"That's why the doctors thought I felt I lacked motivation to get better and thought they needed to do something," said Chan, who was full of praise for the medical staff at the hospital, some of whom became sick in the days before she was discharged in March, 2003.
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