Jiwon Park Fights to Get Her Voice Back

Attacked and severely injured nine years ago, her rehabilitation continues.

By Crawford Kilian 14 Jun 2011 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Jiwon Park: her rehab resources have been cut.

When I visited Jiwon Park the other day, she was looking forward to watching the Canucks in game four of the Stanley Cup finals. She'd watched game three at CBC Plaza in the special wheelchair section, and was eager to see the next one.

"Can you see the action on the big screen?" I asked. In the attack that nearly killed her in Stanley Park in 2002, Jiwon suffered cortical blindness; she can see in three dimensions, but two-dimensional images are hard to interpret. She gave me the big smile that means "Yes." She also vocalized a lot.

Hockey is a welcome break for Jiwon, whose life has revolved around medical procedures and rehabilitation ever since May 27, 2002. As a 22-year-old Korean studying English in the West End, she went for a jog in Stanley Park. A psychologically disturbed man attacked her, choked her almost to death, and left her with permanent brain damage: partly paralyzed, unable to speak or read, but with her intelligence intact.

She and her mother Jackie Lim live in an apartment designed for persons with disabilities, and a personal caregiver looks after her as well. On weekends her brother David comes home to visit; he lives in Coquitlam and works as an accountant.

Two operations since January

Since the beginning of the year, Jiwon has had two operations on her hands and arms. Their purpose was to relax her hands, which clenched into awkward fists after the attack. The left arm is complete, and she proudly showed her open hand. The right arm is still bandaged; until recently, it was in a cast.

The operations have meant a long pause in the aquatherapy sessions she's been taking for years, as well as other rehabilitation exercises involving the use of her arms. But Jackie says they may resume in September.

A fundraising effort last winter enabled Jiwon to hire a speech therapist and a kinesiologist. With a couple of sessions every week, she's made progress. Proudly, she says: "Hi."

"She's doing some good work on her speech," her therapist Alisa Ferdinandi told me in a phone interview. "She sees me once a week, and she has a rehabilitation assistant and a music therapist working to support her. In three months, I've noticed a change."

Usually, says Ferdinandi, a person with Jiwon's kind of speech impairment can use an augmented speech device. But Jiwon's physical limitations and vision problems make such a device impracticable.

"It's also part of her personality," Ferdinandi said. "It's important for her to get her voice back. Because she's so bright and motivated, oral speech therapy has worked."

Ferdinandi has encouraged Jiwon to vocalize as much as possible, instead of simply smiling for "yes" and closing her eyes for "no." "She's used to not being understood, not using her voice." So her vocalizations are part of regaining that voice.

The high cost of rehabilitation

But the money for Jiwon's speech therapy will run out at the end of June.

That's been a perennial problem. While her basic living expenses are covered under the victims of crime law, rehabilitation is another matter. An anonymous benefactor has paid for some of it, but funding for other programs has been cut because she was defined as having "plateaued" rather than making more progress. But that meant losing much of the progress she'd already made.

Jackie and Jiwon recently met a young man who'd been disabled in a car accident. He has been improving greatly, he told them, by sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen tank. But the facility is in Coquitlam, a long commute, and 40 one-hour sessions would cost $5,000.

Sun Run, and flickers of sadness

Apart from rehabilitation, Jiwon lives a quiet life. She enjoyed being in the Sun Run last year, and she gets a kick out of rooting for the Canucks on her Facebook page. She listens to QM-FM all day, and sleeps with it on as well; Jackie says the station was playing in the hospital room when Jiwon came out of her coma, weeks after the attack.

She is good company -- listening intently, smiling, laughing, observant. But when we talk about the nine years since the attack, her face expresses profound sadness. She was 22 then. Now she is 31, with almost a decade of pain and sorrow bottled up inside her. Somehow, she will regain her voice. And we must be prepared to listen.  [Tyee]

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