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The Lifelong Journey of Ji Won Park

Her agile mind defies injury, 13 years after a senseless attack.

By Crawford Kilian 17 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Treatment is a lifetime endeavour for Ji Won and her family.

Ji Won Park recently celebrated her 35th birthday -- a remarkable achievement, since she was very nearly killed in a bizarre attack 13 years ago. They've been 13 very hard years, but they've been made better by her family and her own positive attitude -- and by British Columbia's Crime Victim Assistance Program.

In May 2002, Ji Won was 22 years old, living in Vancouver on a student visa so she could improve her English. She'd studied at a university in Seoul, and had also studied Turkish. A capable pianist, she was planning to stay in Vancouver to study for a career in international conference management.

Living in the West End near the school she attended, Ji Won often went jogging in Stanley Park. On this occasion, she encountered a disturbed young man who attacked her, strangling her with the wire of her own Walkman. She might have died but for the arrival of another man, who detained the attacker and called for help.

The case caused shockwaves both here and in South Korea; B.C. has attracted foreign students for years, and Vancouver had a reputation as a safe city for them.

The damage done made the attack even more horrific. She suffered brain damage and remained in a coma. Doctors offered little hope of her ever regaining consciousness. But her mother Jackie Lim, and then her brother David, flew from South Korea to stay by her bedside.

With the help of a local translator, Jackie was able to communicate with Ji Won's medical caregivers, though the conversations must have been grim. For weeks, Ji Won showed little change: she remained comatose, her left knee drawn up to her chest and her right fist pressed against her left shoulder. To straighten them out, her leg and arm had to be put in casts.

Starting over

When she emerged from her coma after four or five weeks, she had no memory of the attack and was in constant pain. Not until December did the pain suddenly cease. But that was just the first step in a long, slow journey to only partial recovery.

The attack had left Ji Won intellectually unharmed but neurologically crippled: she could hear but couldn't speak, and had suffered cortical blindness. That meant she couldn't make sense of images on a screen or letters on a page. Her limbs were effectively paralyzed, her legs often cramped, her hands clenched into helpless fists.

Jackie and David faced difficulties of their own -- trying to care for Ji Won in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language, in a health care system culturally very different from South Korea's. Clearly, Ji Won was better off in Canada than she would be in South Korea, but no one in the family had permanent resident status.

But they had some lucky breaks: Vancouver's Korean community, as well as ESL and ordinary residents, raised money to cover expenses. Ji Won's case got intense and supportive coverage in the local Korean and English-language media.

Perhaps most important, B.C.'s Crime Victim Assistance Program (CVAP) had been established that year. Intended to provide emotional and practical help to victims, CVAP was able to support the family in numerous ways. Victims of crime can turn to the program for medical and dental services, counselling, income support, personal care, disability aids, and transportation.

A key step for Ji Won was providing long-term housing. The Parks were able to move into a new apartment in downtown Vancouver, especially equipped for persons with disabilities. They're still there, where the family and Ji Won's personal caregivers can look after her.

Late in 2004 the family received resident status, further strengthening their ability to care for Ji Won. They could also use CVAP support for physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.

The family created a "microboard" to control the funds provided by CVAP and other sources; this enabled them to select and keep the best personal care attendants. An anonymous donor has paid for years of neurotherapy sessions at the Swingle Clinic, which enabled her to improve her control over her own body. David Park resumed his education; he is now an accountant, still living at home and helping support the family.

The Tyee has been following Ji Won's progress for a decade, including some encouraging milestones. She explored graphic arts, unlikely given her cortical blindness, but the results were striking. Speech therapy improved her ability to express herself, and physiotherapy enabled her to take a few steps.

Steps backward and forward

But Ji Won faced steps backward as well as forward. Money ran out for the speech therapy and physiotherapy. While she vocalizes more than she used to, she still communicates mostly with a smile (yes) and closed eyes (no), and facial expressions. Computers haven't offered a useful medium. It is all the more frustrating because she is clearly aware of the world around her, but unable to say what she thinks about it.

At one point she needed an operation to straighten the toes of her left foot; the unpleasant aftermath wasn't helped by painkillers. More recently, she spent time in hospital dealing with gastrointestinal problems.

Nevertheless, Ji Won enjoys life more than many. She goes on occasional expeditions to destinations like the Okanagan, and a couple of years ago she was able to revisit South Korea.

Ji Won Park has faced a horrifying challenge and endured it. The great challenge for us is to go beyond the needed but inadequate funding she has received, and to find a way to free her mind if not her body -- to enable her to teach us what it is like to be trapped for years in her own head. It would be a hard but necessary lesson.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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