The Resilience of Ji Won Park

Ten years after barely surviving an attack, she readies to visit her homeland of Korea.

By Crawford Kilian 26 May 2012 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Ji Won Park signals 'yes' with a smile.

On May 27, 2002, Ji Won Park was living in the West End, studying English. She was 22, a talented young woman from Korea who played the piano, had also learned Turkish, and planned on a career as an event planner. That day she went for a jog in Stanley Park; on one of the trails, she encountered a mentally disturbed young man who attacked her, choking her first with the wire of her own Walkman and then with his hands.

Help came, but it was almost too late. The attacker was arrested, and Ji Won was taken to hospital in a coma. Lack of oxygen had caused severe brain damage. When her mother, Jackie Lim, arrived from Korea, she was told Ji Won would likely never come out of the coma.

But weeks later she did -- into a nightmare of pain, her fists clenched and one knee drawn up to her shoulder. She had no memory of the attack, and no idea what had happened to her. The pain lasted for four months and then suddenly disappeared. Despite the brain damage, her mind was intact, trapped in an almost paralyzed body.

In the months that followed, the attacker went to jail (he was released in early 2008), Ji Won's brother David arrived after military service to help look after her, and the long process of rehabilitation began.

Ten years later, Ji Won has made some progress, but much remains to be done. Physiotherapy helped her to take a few steps, but the province cut off funding years ago, saying she was no longer improving. She remains confined to her wheelchair except for aquatherapy sessions; her mother proudly ran a video clip for me, showing Ji Won walking in a swimming pool.

Other efforts and experiments have ended as well. She has cortical blindness and can't see most two-dimensional images. (She can't read, for the same reason.) Even so, for a few months she produced some remarkable drawings. A speech therapist made progress with her, but again the money ran out. (Jackie says the family is planning to request more government funding.)

'She has an amazing memory'

Still, she can see images on a big flat-screen TV hooked up to her computer.

"On the big screen," her mother says, "it is much easier for her to identify the objects. However, unfortunately, she can't see details of the things on the screen, but she recognizes voices. For instance, if there is a man on the screen she can only identify there is a man but can't recognize what he looks like; she can only recognize the voice. She has an amazing memory. Once she knows the voice, she never forgets!

"She likes to watch Korean dramas," Jackie adds, "and she listens to music through the Internet. She also enjoys watching Grey's Anatomy and the news."

Computers help Ji Won keep in touch with the world, even if she can't use them directly. After she wakes up in the morning, her mother says, she spends an hour in bed to plan for the day, pray, and exercise her left arm, which she can raise and lower a little. At breakfast, she listens to the radio and her caregivers read her the newspapers. They also check her iPhone and iPad, monitoring her email and Facebook page for any updates.

Jackie says Ji Won's health is good; she rarely has even a headache. Sometimes she goes out for a walk with a caregiver and visits a local café to socialize. She communicates with a big smile for "yes" and closed eyes for "no." She can gesture by raising her left arm, and surgery has loosened her clenched fists.

Earlier this year, Ji Won and her mother and brother became Canadian citizens. It was a proud day for them, and a long way from the anxious time in 2004 when they weren't sure they would be granted resident status.

This year's big project is a return to Korea in the fall. While Ji Won has gone on a few short trips with her family in their special van, this journey will be a challenge. It means a long flight in an airplane with her mother, brother and one caregiver all looking after her, and then several weeks in a country with little wheelchair access. But it will also mean a chance to see her grandmother again, probably for the last time.

And after that? More rehabilitation: if the money is available, she will do more physio and speech therapy. Some day she will be able to communicate with more than "yes" and "no," and she will have a remarkable story to tell us.  [Tyee]

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