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Sars widow finds love again  (from the Straits Times 18th May 2008)

Wife of doctor who died while fighting the Sars epidemic in 2003 weds author and entrepreneur

By Wong Kim Hoh

Dr Koh Woon Puay and author George Tan exchanged marriage vows yesterday, with Dr Koh's two daughters – Beatrice (front) and Bernice (hidden) at their side. -- ST. PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

Five years ago, many who knew Dr Koh Woon Puay wept with her when she lost her surgeon husband Alexandre Chao to Sars. Fate seemed to have dealt her such a cruel hand, robbing her of her soulmate and depriving her two daughters – then aged just four and one – of their father.

Yesterday, several of Dr Koh's loved ones and closest friends shed copious tears once more – this time of joy, as she became a bride again.

Flanked by daughters Beatrice, nine, and Berenice, six, she exchanged rings and marriage vows with entrepreneur and author George Tan in a simple but moving ceremony at the Upper Club in Chijmes.

Wearing a strapless wedding gown with a long train, the radiant bride, 39, says: 'When Alex died, many of my friends quoted the apostle Paul and said he fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. I think now, it's my turn to run the race.'

She adds: 'I'm blessed. Not many people can say this, but I fell in love twice and had the privilege of marrying them both.'

Cupid struck swiftly and unexpectedly the second time around. Upon the urging of a mutual friend, the associate professor at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine met Mr Tan, 50, for drinks in a Bencoolen Street cafe just before Christmas last year.

He made the ultimate sacrifice

Dr Alexandre Chao died on April 22, 2003, one week after he was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital for what was suspected to be dengue.

Then just 37, the only son of the late forensic expert Chao Tzee Cheng had suffered symptoms such as fever and rashes while his chest X-rays were normal – which led doctors to believe he did not have severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

But on the morning of April 22, the deadly virus – which had infected about 200 and killed more than 30 people in Singapore – had ravaged the vascular surgeon's lungs.

By mid-afternoon, his heart had stopped. Doctors tried to restart it 15 times, to no avail.

Dr Chao and his wife had met as medical students in the National University of Singapore and had been married for seven years when he died. Their two daughters, Beatrice and Berenice, were then just four and one respectively.

When Sars broke out in Singapore in early April 2003, Dr Chao was actually on leave – which he cut short to return and help fight the virus. When he fell ill, he took extraordinary lengths to keep his family safe, even isolating himself in a room in his god-brother's home.

On the day he admitted himself into hospital on April 15, he drove to his home, stayed in the car and waved to his daughters.

That was the last time they saw him alive.

Twice blessed

'I'm blessed. Not many people can say this, but I fell in love twice and had the privilege of marrying them both.'

Dr Koh Woon Puay

Neither had been told much about the other. She knew he ran a recruitment company; he was told she was a single mother of two girls.

She says: 'We exchanged cards and chatted. He said he was a writer but didn't talk about his books.'

Sparks didn't exactly fly; in fact, she found him boring. But she was intrigued enough to check out the website of Booksoul, a publishing business which Mr Tan founded in 2005. She found out that he had penned six books, ranging from motivational and self-help tomes to his 2006 best-selling autobiography Soulprints I – Breakthrough.

The book chronicled his turbulent background in the gangster-infested neighbourhoods of Tiong Bahru and Bukit Ho Swee.

The fifth of six children of a coolie and a breadseller, he was abused by his alcoholic father. With the help of his late mother, however, the former gangster and gambler turned his life around.

He earned himself a couple of degrees, became a naval officer and climbed the corporate ladder before becoming an entrepreneur and author.

He also went through an extraordinary first marriage. He was summoned home in 1980 in the midst of his first-year university examinations to find a bride and a tea ceremony arranged for him by his mother. His father – who was on his deathbed – had wanted to see him married before he died. The union produced a daughter, now 20. Husband and wife parted ways when MrTan's mother died 12 years ago.

Dr Koh says: 'I was impressed and intrigued because none of this came up in our conversation. I e-mailed him, told him who my husband was and said I had read his website.'

He asked to meet her again.

'I know it is difficult for a single mother and I just wanted to pass her some books which might inspire and help her,' he replies earnestly, when asked if he was already attracted to her then. 

He didn't pass her Breakthrough though!


She recalls: 'I spent the next few days scouring bookshops only to be told they were sold out. He said he would give me a copy when we next met.
 
'I think it was a ploy,' she adds with a laugh.
 
Before the couple knew it, they were dating.

'It was strange,' says DrKoh. 'We felt very comfortable sharing and discussing very personal things like pain, forgiveness and disappointments.'

Mr Tan's pastor advised him to take Dr Koh to his pre-marital counselling workshop.

'I was shocked. Wah, so fast. But he assured me that attending the course doesn't mean we must get married,' he recalls. Dr Koh went along.

The course confirmed her belief that they deserved a second shot at happiness. It helped that her daughters took to Mr Tan from day one. They now affectionately call him Daddo.

Dr Koh recalls gingerly asking Beatrice how she would feel if 'Mummy married Uncle George'.

'She looked at me sternly and said: 'Mummy, you have to answer it yourself. You must marry him because you love him, not because you think it will make us happy.''

Just as the clock struck 12 to usher in Valentine's Day this year, Mr Tan proposed to Dr Koh from Turkey where he was on a trip arranged before they met.

He recalls: 'It was -10 degC and I was with 20 people on a tour bus in the middle of nowhere. I told the tour guide he had to let me down so that I could make a call in private.'

He repeated his proposal yesterday at the Upper Club, moving the 150 guests, including Dr Koh's former mother-in-law, Mrs Chao Yoke Choy.

'I'm very comforted. It has not been easy for Woon Puay. I've always hoped that she would find someone who can help her face life's challenges and care for her children. I trust her judgment,' says the Chinese-language teacher at Clementi Primary School.