No cover and now no job for Sony boss hit by incurable illness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 April, 2010, 12:00am

Kelly Chew Siang-kiang was supposed to start her first day in Sony's Asia headquarters in Hong Kong on January 2, 2007.

Six months earlier, the Singapore-based music executive had been promoted to a HK$2.2 million salary and a senior marketing role.

Her new role, which involved growing a multimillion-dollar business involving the promotion of leading Western artists throughout the region, had been so time-consuming she hadn't had a chance to relocate permanently to Hong Kong.

But Chew never made it into work that day. When she woke, her face was ashen, her head pounding and she felt nauseous.

Instead of the office, she headed straight to a doctor's clinic. As soon as he saw her, he asked her if she was anaemic, which she wasn't. That afternoon the doctor, by now extremely worried, called and told her to head straight to hospital since her levels of haemoglobin - the protein which carries oxygen in blood - were so low she could fall unconscious at any time.

Chew, her mother and daughter caught a taxi to the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital in Happy Valley. There were more blood tests, which showed her haemoglobin level had fallen to just three; the normal level for a woman is 11. The nurses were amazed she was still conscious.

She was checked for leukaemia and was given nearly three litres of blood. A sample of her bone marrow was taken, but nothing untoward was found.

On January 9, after eight days of tests and examinations in the hospital, the diagnosis came back - one which changed her life forever. She was suffering from autoimmune myelofibrosis, a rare condition for which there is little chance of a cure.

No one could explain the condition properly, but she was told she would need constant blood transfusions and treatment with powerful steroids to live. If left untreated, she would die.

There were no straightforward cures and no experts on the illness, Chew was told. The only possible solution was a bone marrow transplant, which came with no guarantee of a cure since there was a big risk her body would reject the new marrow.

As well as having to deal with learning of her condition, Chew discovered something which would make her trips to the hospital all the more painful: she had not been enrolled in Sony's Hong Kong health insurance programme, a far better one than she had enjoyed on her Singapore contract.

By the end of her first stay, her hospital bill was US$33,000 for the tests, biopsies and transfusions needed. Those costs have since escalated to US$85,000 and will continue to increase for the rest of her life.

Chew has now launched a claim before the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming Sony failed to properly enrol her in an appropriate medical plan and later sacked her without proper compensation as her condition deteriorated.

The claim states those employed at her seniority within the company were supposed to be enrolled in a plan which would have covered her condition.

In response to the legal claim, a Sony spokeswoman in New York said: 'The company will respond to Ms Chew in due course and we hope for an amicable resolution to this.'

William Giles, her Hong Kong-based lawyer, said he had never heard of a case in the city where an employee had to sue to get their company to pay their health insurance.

'These are rights to medical cover which are enshrined in the employment contract,' he said. 'It shouldn't be an issue. What message does it send to their other employees?'