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The Unspoken Message of Ji Won Park

Five years after being attacked, she struggles silently.

By Crawford Kilian 25 May 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian, a regular contributor to The Tyee, blogs about Ji Won Park at http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/jiwon.

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Ji Won at home. Photo by David Park.

On May 27, 2002, a man with severe psychological problems attacked a young woman as she was jogging in Stanley Park.

She was a Korean studying English in the West End, planning eventually to return to Korea to complete her degree and then perhaps return to Vancouver to learn about event management.

Ji Won Park could easily have died of strangulation that day. But she lived, with severe brain damage. Her attacker has been in prison since then, but her own prison is far narrower. He is merely enclosed within a building. She is trapped in her own body, cortically blind, unable to speak, barely capable of moving.

Recently I visited her and her family. Maybe it was a bad time for a visit, the day after she'd had surgery. The neurological damage done to her in the attack had, among other things, forced the toes of her left foot to curl; this was hindering her physiotherapy.

The surgery was to straighten out her foot, but the benefits will be a long time coming. She was perched in her wheelchair, her left foot in a cast that won't come off for eight weeks. The tips of her toes were exposed, each with the coloured plastic head of a pin inserted to keep the toe straight.

Yes, it hurt. She was on painkillers, but they weren't working. I didn't see the blinding smile she usually gives visitors. She struggled to respond to my questions, to take part in the conversation I had with her mother and brother.

Therapy halted

The family has done well since the attack by some standards, and very badly by others. We have given them an apartment in the West End built for persons with disabilities, and we've paid for caregivers.

Her mother Jackie Lim studies English as a second language four mornings a week, and looks after Ji Won the rest of the time. Her younger brother, David Park, has been taking business courses at Capilano College, and hopes to enter BCIT's financial-management program in September.

An anonymous benefactor has been paying for Ji Won's regular sessions with a neurotherapist, trying to rebuild the nerve connections that we take for granted as we walk across a room, or pick up a cup of coffee, or say "Hello." She still has a weekly hydrotherapy session at Pearson Centre.

But Ji Won's regular physiotherapy ended last October when it was decided she wasn't making progress. She no longer receives speech therapy either, and the art lessons that led to her remarkable paintings have long since ceased. When her foot heals, she will need to resume physiotherapy that the government is no longer willing to pay for.

The inner life

Long ago I read Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun. It's the story of Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in World War I who wakes up in a military hospital to find he has lost his arms, his legs, his face, and all his senses except the sense of touch. The novel shows how he tries to communicate with his caregivers by tapping his head on his pillow in Morse code. It is one of the most nightmarish novels of the 20th century.

In some ways, Ji Won's nightmare is worse. Her Morse code is a simple smile for yes and a downward glance for no. Her cortical blindness allows her to see objects in three dimensions, but two-dimensional surfaces are effectively invisible. So letters and numerals mean nothing and offer no means of communication. She hears, she understands, but she cannot fully respond.

Yet she clearly has a lot on her mind, and plenty to say. Somewhere, someone must have the means to enable her to speak and write. Five years ago she made an involuntary journey into a land of pain and silence, but she is not the only one who lives there.

Some day she will speak -- not just for herself but for countless others imprisoned in their own bodies. I hope we will listen.

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