‘I’m not scared’: Intellectual disability no impediment as
‘accomplished’ blood donor nears 70th donation 1

SINGAPORE: The sight of a needle breaking skin often elicits myriad reactions.

Some blood donors wince and squeeze their eyes shut, others grit their teeth and avert their gaze.

But Conrad Puah Neo is no average donor – he has been giving blood for two decades and counting. To be precise – 69 times since 1997.

“He has no issues with needles and all that,” Conrad’s father and caregiver Clement Puah Neo told CNA. “Even when I was a blood donor, when they were doing the donation I would just turn away – I didn’t want to look, I didn’t want to anticipate it. 

“Not him, he will look at the needle!”

But Conrad isn’t just stoic or tolerant of the donation process – he actively looks forward to it. 

Said Mr Puah Neo: “About a month after the last donation, he will start asking: ‘When are we going to donate blood?’”

As his blood ebbs down a tube into a collection bag, Conrad is at ease.

“I like to donate blood and I’m not scared,” he said. “This blood will save patients.”

‘PLEASE TELL CONRAD NOT TO BE SO HELPFUL’

43-year-old Conrad has moderate intellectual disability which has affected his speech, ability to read and certain aspects of behaviour such as social skills.

Following a high fever which Conrad suffered as an infant, Mr Puah Neo and his late wife Mona began to realise that their son was missing “significant” milestones.

Conrad Puah Neo waits during his blood donation

Conrad Puah Neo waits during his blood donation. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

“His milestones got delayed, we became suspicious so we brought him to the pediatrician when he was about 2+,” said Mr Puah Neo. 

“Other children were able to do certain things at eight months, nine months but it was only at 1.5 to 2 years old that Conrad was able to do those things.

“Of course you are disappointed … you will also ask this question – why me? But that did not last too long a time, because we told ourselves that we would do the best we can.”

So Mr Puah Neo and his wife decided to be “inclusive” in how they would raise Conrad.

“It’s only a four letter word – love. That will determine how you manage your children. In the case of my late wife and myself, we decided that we would raise him like any other child,” he explained. 

“That means he will not miss out on anything. As a result, he is much more socially adjusted. That’s why I have no qualms leaving him in a group situation. He enjoys it – it is not foreign to him.”

A former student of APSN Katong School and APSN Chao Yang School, Conrad graduated from Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) Towner Gardens School at the age of 18.

He currently works at the Minds Idea Employment Development Centre (MINDS IEDC), where he packs earphones.

Conrad Puah Neo is often recognised by doctors and nurses at the blood bank

Conrad Puah Neo is often recognised by doctors and nurses at the blood bank. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Usually cheery and smiling in the company of others, Conrad is always looking for how he can help those around him, said his father.

“That helpfulness is in him,” explained Mr Puah Neo.  “For a long time, I had difficulty with him at supermarkets because he would rearrange the shelves. He would say: ‘Oh – it’s not in line or it doesn’t look right.’

“We spent three years in Israel where he went to a Hebrew school. At the first parent-teacher conference, the teacher said: ‘Please tell Conrad not to be so helpful!’

“He would see the teacher drop the duster and from the back of the class, he would walk there. And when he walks, he doesn’t care what comes in between .. even the table could be knocked over. That’s him.”

THE ROLL OF HONOUR

With Mr Puah Neo being a regular blood donor, it was only normal that Conrad would follow suit.

“He followed me wherever I went for my blood donations, if you speak to him, he’s very chatty, he always wants to know why: ‘Why was I doing it?” explained Mr Puah Neo. “I explained to him that blood saves lives, so from very young, he wanted to donate blood himself. So as soon as he was able to, when he was 21 years old, I brought him.

“I would point out to him the roll of honour in the blood bank. He sees my name there and says he wants to see his name up there.”

Being a “visual person”, Conrad understands what it is like to be sick, added Mr Puah Neo, and he is aware of the necessity for donors to come forward.

“When he sees something, he remembers,” said Mr Puah Neo.  “If an auntie, uncle, old folks are in the hospital, we would bring him. So he does know suffering.”

Conrad Puah Neo interacts with a doctor

Conrad Puah Neo interacts with a doctor. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

With blood usage in Singapore increasing at a rate of 3 to 5 per cent annually, and about 600 donors stopping their donation of blood due to age or illnesses, more donors are needed, said the Singapore Red Cross in response to queries from CNA.

And regular donors like Conrad will be key. His eventual goal is to reach his 100th blood donation in 2023.

“If you understand people with disabilities, there are lots of things they cannot do,” said Mr Puah Neo. “The danger is that self-esteem can be quite low. Every time people have to do things for them and they are always told: ‘You cannot this, you cannot do that.’

“He’s very proud of donating blood, that gives him self-esteem and that spurs him on. He feels accomplished.”