At City Harvest Church, pastors Wu Yuzhuang and Audrey Ng, both 43, are familiar faces. Pastor Zhuang is a Division Pastor and is in charge of the Emerge Ministry and Marketplace Ministry in the church, while Pastor Audrey, who is a Zone Pastor and also looks after the Liberty Ministry. Both are looked up to as leaders who have helped countless others to develop their faith and experience victory in their walk with God. They are parents to three children: Kymberly, 15; Nygel, 13 and Tyler, 7.
But behind this power couple’s confident demeanor, lies a strength that few have witnessed first-hand, one attained through journeying through two of their children’s medical challenges.
City Parents talks to Pastor Zhuang and Pastor Audrey about their faith-building journey through parenthood.
City Parents (CP): Pastors, tell us how you met.
Pastor Zhuang (PZ): We met when we were 17. We were both cell group leaders in church.
Pastor Audrey (PA): We were good friends first. We started dating when we were 19.
CP: How did you know the other person was “the one” for you? When did you get married?
PZ: I was on a singlehood vow till I was 19. I felt Audrey was the one because (laughs) when you look for a partner you must have three things: good character, physical attraction and communication.
PA: We got married when we were 25. We were one of the youngest couples to get married! It was very rare at that time to get attached at 19.
CP: When did you start trying for a family?
PZ: We wanted to spend some time serving the Lord first, after we got married. So we only thought about kids at the age of 27. We tried for a year, but nothing happened. We were discouraged, but we prayed.
PA: We wanted my grandmother to have her first great grandchild.
CP: Tell us about the birth of your first child, Kymberly.
PA: Eventually I got pregnant in 2001, and the due date was October. We jokingly said, “Oh maybe she’ll come out on our anniversary.” True enough, when we were about to go out to celebrate our anniversary, my labor started. I said “Cannot! I haven’t had my pasta yet!”. But God reminded us through that, that our prayers from one year ago were answered.
CP: What about Nygel?
PZ: Audrey was pregnant with Nygel one year later. We were very happy. And then we noticed in his third month that he couldn’t lift up his head. (CP notes: Babies usually can lift up their heads at one month of age)
PA: We had noticed that his head was a bit big. We brought him to the doctor, and the doctor suspected hydrocephalus.
PZ: The X-ray showed some water in his brain. (CP notes: Hydrocephalus is a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.) We were scared, we didn’t know what to expect. We searched the Internet and the pictures we saw made us more scared.
PA: The doctor warned us that he may not grow up normal. He underwent six months of physiotherapy to gain strength to lift his head.
PZ: Pastor Kong, Sun, Pastor Phil (Pringle) all prayed for Nygel. And a few months later, he was totally normal!
CP: As husband and wife, as pastors, how did you both feel when you went through this?
PA: In Nygel’s case, we were peaceful. Of course, we had our fears, like how we were to raise him.
PZ: Pastor Phil laid hands on him and prophesied that this boy will bring joy to us.
PA: We really held on to that word. When Nygel was completely healed, we were so grateful and thankful to the Lord.
CP: When did you decide to try for Tyler?
PZ: We were actually busy fulfilling our pastoral duties; we weren’t trying very hard. God gave him to us.
PA: I became pregnant in October 2009. It was a smooth pregnancy, but labor was over 12 hours! Everyone had told me that the third one comes out very fast, but I think I went in too early. Everything was very normal with Tyler’s birth.
CP: When did you notice that something was not quite right?
PA: After one month, I felt Tyler was a little yellow. I asked other parents, but they felt he looked normal. Call it mother’s instinct or whatever, but on 23 Dec 2009, I decided to bring him to the paediatrician. Even the doctor felt he looked okay, but I asked for a blood test just to rule out any potential problem.
PZ: It was December and we were all preparing to celebrate Christmas at church.
PA: We were all dressed up when the call came. That call changed my life. The doctor said, “You have to bring Tyler to KKH right away, his bilirubin is very high.”
CP: What was the diagnosis?
PA: Tyler had biliary atresia. (CP notes: Biliary atresia is a life-threatening condition in infants in which the bile ducts inside or outside the liver do not have normal openings. Bile ducts carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder for storage and to the small intestine for use in digestion. Bile is a fluid made by the liver that serves two main functions: carrying toxins and waste products out of the body and helping the body digest fats and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Source: niddk.nih.gov)
CP: It must have been a nightmare! What happened next?
PZ: Tyler went for a Kasai procedure to remove the blocked bile ducts and gallbladder and replacing them with a segment of his small intestine. It was almost like 10-hour operation on New Year’s Eve. When we saw him again he had tubes all over him. But to know the worst was over was encouraging. We didn’t want to look back to the painful past. Before the operation, his urine was dark, his faeces was white and he was jaundiced.
PA: To be honest, I was scared. He was only two months old. And the doctor described what might happen after the operation: one-third of cases are successful and the bile system works, but he would need to be on medication for life. Another third of all cases will require a liver transplant later. And for a final third, the operation fails and an immediate transplant is required.
CP: Was Tyler completely well after that?
PZ: After his operation, he was fine. We were thankful he fell into the third of patients that had a successful Kasai procedure. But a few months later, his stool was white again.
PA: This time the doctor said he had cholangitis. In other words, the biliary tract was infected. He had to go on several courses of intravenous antibiotics.
PZ: Between one year and three years of age, Tyler was in and out of hospital.
PA: Every time he had fever, he had to go to hospital.
PZ: They poked him (with needles to draw blood) everywhere: arms, legs, neck, tummy.
PA: For three years, Tyler was constantly jaundiced.
PZ: People would pat his stomach and say “So cute! So fat!” But it was because his stomach was bloated from his condition.
PA: It was really so heart-breaking. That was when we really knew what unconditional love is, watching him get from bad to worse.
CP: It must have been a very challenging time for you both.
PZ: It was financially, physically, emotionally draining. Then when he was three years old, the doctor said Tyler had cirrhosis (CP notes: Cirrhosis is an abnormal liver condition in which there is irreversible scarring of the liver.) The doctor also said that chances of finding a liver donor were very slim. So I went for a check to see if I could donate part of my liver to him. In 2012, I gave one-third of my liver to Tyler.
CP: What went through your mind at that time?
PZ: It was tough. I didn’t know what to expect.
PA: It was scary to see, first my husband, then my son going into the operating theatre. The whole procedure took around 13 hours.
PZ: It was my first operation ever. I was uncertain of the future, but I was hopeful. In fact, I was looking forward to it—if this could save Tyler, it was worth it.
CP: What was it like at home? How did you parent your two older children?
PZ: It was tough for them too. They felt uncertain about a lot of things. They wondered why we were not at home. They felt lost without our presence, without a normal family lifestyle.
PA: I was in hospital every single day. It wasn’t easy. But I found ways to make time for them. Nygel likes dogs; I would leave the hospital in some evenings and brought him to walk around the neighborhood to see the dogs, then I would go back to the hospital. We made these small efforts to be there. Out of this, Kymberly became more independent and responsible, and she also treasures family time more.
CP: And apart from being parents, you’re also both pastors. How did you cope with your pastoral duties?
PA: We showed our members our human side. The cell group leaders in our zones knew we were fearful; they prayed for us. Part of our ministry is showing people that we are not superheroes. But yes, there were challenging times: I remember while Tyler was in ICU after the transplant, I had a couple come to me at the hospital for counseling.
PZ: (laughs) And while I was recuperating after the transplant, I had to conduct a wedding rehearsal at the Starbucks in the hospital lobby!
CP: What you went through with Tyler spanned a few years. Did you ever feel alone in your troubles?
PZ: At the beginning, Pastor Kong asked people to pray for us. At church, every 10 steps we took, someone would stop and ask about Tyler. We were grateful, but it was also very stressful, so we asked for some space. I have to admit, there were times I felt that life went on for everybody else and we were left alone in our crisis. When you go through crises, you struggle with negative thoughts.
PA: But we learned that, when people don’t love us the way we want them to love us, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love us. From January to June 2012 Tyler was in hospital and I was there every day. I would tell myself, “Take a day at a time” but sometimes, a day felt too long. “Take an hour at a time” but sometimes an hour felt too long. So I told myself, “Take it a minute at a time”. That’s how we lived life at that time.
CP: What a journey! So was Tyler well after the operation?
PZ: After the transplant, he had to take anti-rejection medicine—this helps the body to recognize the transplanted liver or the body will reject it, but it causes low immunity. He had to be quarantined, kept away from crowded places.
PA: One year after the transplant, he had a stomach virus. It’s not a problem for normal kids, but Tyler’s immune system couldn’t fight back. It was so bad that the virus took over and his stomach became bloated.
PZ: The doctor decided to stop the immune suppressant.
PA: The doctor felt Tyler needed to build up his immunity, and the only way to do that was to let his body fight the virus. If he didn’t take him off the suppressant, Tyler might succumb to the virus sooner than his body starts to reject the transplant. The day they stopped the medicine was scary. He had to have three blood tests a day.
PZ: But two weeks later he recovered, and he was discharged! Supernaturally, he came off the immune suppressant, and he hasn’t needed it till today. There has been no sign of rejection of the liver.
PA: He is drug-free now. It is really a miracle for one who has had a liver transplant and doesn’t need the drug. We are so grateful for this miracle!
CP: Wow, praise Jesus! Now looking back, what were the best and the worst moments of this whole journey?
PA: I think the best thing that came out of this was how it made our marriage even stronger. I remember at one point when Tyler was having a scan done and I was afraid, I said to Zhuang, “I think I always try my best to be a good pastor, leader, mother and friend. But I haven’t been a good wife.” I told him I would make him a priority.
PZ: The worst was the epidural. She told me it would be fine, not painful. But it was so painful!
PA: The epidural didn’t work for him, so he was in a lot of pain. In the end they had to put him on morphine.
PZ: Ya, the worst was when I was lying down after the transplant. (shudders)
CP: Did you ever fight about Tyler?
PZ: Never. It pulled us closer together.
PA: When Tyler got well, one year later, we made a resolution to spend more time together. We went on our first trip without the kids that year. Before that, I didn’t like to travel overseas because of the kids. But since then, we’ve made at least two trips overseas without the kids.
CP: How did going through all this change your faith?
PA: Every parent wants the best for their kids; there will always be uncertainty about their future. My greatest fear was that I would lose Tyler. I learned that, until I learn to let go of my fear, that fear will always grip my heart. So I gave my fear to God and trust that God loves him more than I do. Parents are stewards. We have to be faithful, help them on their path in life. But ultimately, they belong to God.
PZ: We learned to walk through the valley. We learned to trust God, to persevere and endure. Ultimately, we walked out of it.
PA: We used to think things have to be perfect. But we learned that they don’t. We learned to be grateful for all we have.