When Simah Empaling heard her child was gravely ill from kidney failure in 2012, she went on a hunger strike. She badly wanted to see her daughter, Ibi Uding, who was on dialysis.
Simah lives in Kampung Merakai, Serian, a village about 85km from Kuching, Sarawak, while Ibi was then in Kuching.
Alas, none of her other children were willing to take her to the hospital for fear that she might not be able to withstand the pain of seeing Ibi suffer.
So she refused to eat.
Eventually, Simah made the journey and broke down when she saw a pale Ibi in the ward, hooked up to a machine.
Ibi, 56, recalls: “She hugged me and cried, saying she could not allow her child to die before her. She kept asking what she could do to help.
“By then, I was constantly vomiting, urinating blood, giddy, couldn’t eat or drink, and had lost more than 15kg.”
Ibi had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time.
“The symptoms started in 2007 with blood in the urine and a bloated stomach. If I carried heavy objects, I’d have back pain.
“I didn’t think much of it because I had three teenage kids and was busy running a business with my husband.
“I must admit that my diet wasn’t the best either,” says the former PKR Sarawak Wanita chief, who is saluted as the Iban torchbearer in her relentless fight for their rights.
As organ transplants involving non-relatives are not allowed in Malaysia and none of her other relatives were a compatible match, Ibi was in dire straits.
Then Simah offered to donate her kidney.
Initially, the doctors were hesitant as she was 79 then. However, Simah passed all the medical tests necessary for a kidney donor with flying colours.
“Prior to the transplant, my grandmother had never been admitted to hospital except when she delivered her six children.
“Her lifestyle is healthy as she used to plant padi and corn in the kampung.
“She also loves fishing, but we had to stop her because she cannot hear well anymore. We’re afraid she might not be able to hear the motorboats,” relates Ibi’s daughter, Seraphina Shantee, 26.
The adorable Simah chips in while Seraphina translates: “My late husband taught me how to fish, but now my children won’t let me go to the river.
“I used to be a strong rower, but I don’t have the same strength anymore.”
The only hitch was that Simah and Ibi were of different blood types.
Fortunately, consultant nephrologist Datuk Dr Tan Si Yen and his team were able to perform blood group incompatible, or ABOi, kidney transplants – the first in Malaysia to do so.
Thus, Simah became the oldest living kidney donor in South-East Asia.
Following the transplant, the doctors were amazed that Simah’s kidney functioned like it belonged to a 40-year-old.
She was out walking within three days of the operation, while it took Ibi a longer time to recover.
The first 100 days were crucial and Ibi adhered strictly to her doctor’s advice, although she contracted urinary tract infections twice.
It has been six years since the transplant was performed and the duo are doing well. They only have to go for check-ups annually.
Seraphina says: “My grandma has not fallen sick since. She needs assistance to walk and might complain from a bit of joint pain now and then, but that’s it.
“She doesn’t even have scars from the surgery. Her skin has healed so well.”
Simah, 84, lives alone in the village (her son lives next door) and continues to enjoy what life has to offer.
“From young, I eat only fish or chicken, and plenty of vegetables. I cook daily, mop and clean the house. I wake up at 8am and hand wash all my clothes,” she says.
Occasionally, Ibi, who now lives in Kuala Lumpur, will fly her mother over for a holiday.
“But she finds it boring here because we’re all at work. She will go knocking on people’s doors and make conversation with them.
“And because she can only speak Iban, the neighbours think she is a crazy woman and complain to the management!” says Ibi, laughing.
“One time we were in Kuching and I told her to stay downstairs while I went upstairs to take a shower.
“When I came down, I found the gates open, the air-conditioners and all lights switched on!
“She was sitting on the sofa and looking at me innocently. She has a curious nature and will turn on buttons to test what happens.”
Simah flashes me her warmest smile, oblivious to our discussion.
“Grandma is such a loving and caring person,” Seraphina adds.
Choking with emotion, a teary Ibi says: “I don’t know what I would have done without her. She’s proven that it’s never too late to donate a kidney. She’s been amazing... my saviour.”