Spirit of Hong Kong

Sink or swim: donations save rising athlete

A decade ago, this young man was fighting for his life in a local hospital. Now he's a star athlete winning medals at an international sporting event

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 5:28pm

Showing courage in the face of adversity is an expression that's bandied about far too easily these days, but it's something Aaron Zweig knows all too well.

In March 2004 the then seven-year-old Aaron was lying in intensive care on life support in Grantham Hospital. He was breathing through a respirator, a machine by his bed did much of the work of his young heart, and his sheets concealed that he was missing one leg. But he was alive.

That was due only to a remarkable effort by the local community, and a dedicated team of doctors. Two weeks previously, doctors had summoned parents David and Joy Zweig and a close circle of their friends to tell them they did not have the machine they needed to save Aaron's life.

Aaron was suffering from acute viral myocarditis, a severe inflammation of the heart muscle that had left the organ on the verge of failure.

He had been connected to a device designed to take the load off the heart, allowing it to mend itself. But it was clear this machine was not up to the job. In fact, it had probably contributed to the blood clot that cost him his leg.

The only device that could perform the task properly, the doctors said, was a model of a ventricular assist device, made by Berlin Heart in Germany.

In just a matter of days family and friends raised the HK$3 million needed to buy the machine and the spare parts needed. Hong Kong is often depicted as a cold and materialistic place.

Aaron's story proves, though, that when the chips are down, humanity is not in short supply here.

"Back in 2004 when Aaron was so ill, everybody helped," Aaron's father David said. "All the Jewish community came together to solve all the problems that may have arisen trying to get the heart machine over here,"

And problems there were. After overcoming the difficulty of contacting someone in the Berlin office on a Saturday and securing a machine with a team of doctors, Aaron's family then had to find a way to get it to Hong Kong and past customs, and obtain work permits for the medics.

Favours were called in, and by early Sunday afternoon the whole package was touching down in Hong Kong aboard a Lufthansa flight. At least that's what they thought. The doctors and accessories had arrived, but the box with the machine was nowhere to be found.

For security reasons it didn't make the connection in Frankfurt. It was sitting on the tarmac in Germany. So the phone calls started again. One friend spoke German and negotiated with the airport while another one got on the phone to Cathay Pacific.

They got the device on an overnight flight and called in yet another favour, from a specialist medical equipment importer, to ensure it cleared customs as fast as possible. When Aaron no longer needed the machine it was donated to Grantham Hospital.

"He wouldn't have made it without the machine," David said. "The local community really came through for us. Today he's as strong as an ox and has turned out to be a great kid."

Having his leg amputated only inspired Aaron to do more with his life, and today it is his talent as a swimmer that's making the news.

The 17-year-old returned last week from Israel, where he was swimming at the Maccabiah Games. The event is an international Jewish multi-sport event involving athletes with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities as well as able-bodied participants. Held in Israel every four years, it is often referred to as the Jewish Olympics.

At the games, Aaron won a silver medal in the 50-metre butterfly event and a bronze in the 100-metre backstroke. He nearly scooped medals in three other events. He now has his sights set on competing for Hong Kong at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.

Life has been a tough but fulfilling journey for him so far, but one thing stays with him.

"When I was in hospital, I remember a doctor said to my dad: 'With your team and my team together, we'll make a miracle'. I think about that when I'm swimming," he said.

"It's touched me in so many ways. I've spoken to other people who have disabilities and serious illnesses and I believe that regardless of what has happened to us, it's given us the strength to realise we can still do what we want and achieve our dreams."

Considering what Aaron had to go through over nine years ago, what he has achieved speaks volumes not just for his family's support, but for the whole circle of friends and acquaintances who pitched in to help save his life.

"When he wins medals internationally at swimming, it's a testament to what the community here has done for him and how he has benefited from that," his father said.

The Chinese International School student is now repaying the help and support he has been given. For the past eight years he has been walking on crutches at charity events to raise money for the Children's Heart Foundation, an organisation that aims to save the lives of children who suffer from heart problems. In recent years he has raised HK$150,000 to HK$180,000 annually and he is one of the charity's biggest sources of funding.

"If people can go out and achieve the goals they have set themselves, then they can become their own inspiration," Aaron said. "A lot of people put things off in life instead of just going for it. Don't put things off, go out there and do it today."