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Zhou Lin Gets Cultural
September 13, 2006
Brecken Swartz
Zhou Lin's life in the hospital has been a constant roller coaster ride of dependence and independence. The pattern is for her to have a surgery, spend a couple of rough days coming off the anasthesia, slowly build strength to do things on her own, and then be thrust into another surgery again. Tomorrow, she will be having the first operation on her hands to start to restore some degree of function to what is left of her fingers. The decision has been made to just proceed with her left hand for now, since the right hand is already so functional (able to write, paint, use chopsticks, and do most everything else she needs to do), yet pulling down the severely contracted fingers on her left hand will give her much better ability to grab things as she begins to bear weight on her feet and walk on prosthetics.

As Zhou Lin resigns herself to a seemingly interminable stay in the hospital, her dulcimer has become her respite. Her music therapists have created an adaptive way for her to play the instrument on her own, and have also helped her to start writing her own songs. Her first song is about her hometown, and is amazingly beautiful: "Wo de jiaxiang zai Sichuan. Nar you shan, you shui..." ("My hometown is in Sichuan. There are mountains and waters there...") Zhou Lin loves the instrument so much that her music therapists have offered to play for her to help her relax before surgery, since the needles and IVs are the scariest part of hospital life for her. As Zhou Lin went through an especially tough pre-op wait last week, her music therapist played the dulcimer to her for over two hours as she waited, which was very soothing to everyone involved. As Zhou Lin lay there, peacefully medicated and wrapped up in warmed blankets, I couldn't help but wonder, "How many hospitals in the world play live music for their patients before surgery?"

Because Shriners Hospitals have not only the luxury of top-notch staff but also a full host of volunteers through the Shriners organization, frequently the kids will get a treat, like pet visits from specially-trained dogs and cats, field trips, pizza parties in the playroom, and plenty of games and prizes. Zhou Lin is increasingly excited to spend time in the hospital playroom making arts and crafts, playing games with staff or other kids, or just hanging out and watching.

Zhou Lin has also been developing the skills and confidence to start reaching out to her nurses and other hospital compatriots more in English. Her roommate now is from Jamaica, and Zhou Lin was excited to ask her roommate's mother if she could braid her hair in the same way. She said that she's always wanted to try tiny braids, but her mother was always too busy. Indeed, the process did take a long time, and her roommate's patient mother spent almost two hours braiding Zhou Lin's hair one evening. Although she only got to keep the braids for a few days, she had lots of fun being told by hospital staff that she looked just like a Tibetan princess.

Since it is now September, Zhou Lin's tutoring lessons have started in earnest -- Chinese, English, math, science, social studies, and art. Her tutors have to be very well-prepared and very flexible, since Zhou Lin's condition can change so remarkably from day to day. Sometimes she may be confined to her bed, sometimes she is unable to write, sometimes her exposure to a topic is rudimentary (i.e. she had no idea what 9/11 was), and other times she moves so quickly that it is hard to keep up. Although we have put together a schedule to try to help Zhou Lin retain some sense of structure and control within the necessarily out-of-control hospital environment, every day is a new adventure of trying to fit everything in. Chinese software has been installed on her donated laptop so that she can look up characters and try to keep up in her Chinese reading, but the tutors are trying not to give her too much homework to keep her from getting overwhelmed.

Zhou Lin and I spend quiet time every evening before bed having a final snack, chatting, reading a story, brushing teeth, and getting tucked in. Because of all the healing going on with her legs, she has to sleep propped up with various pillows under a big dome tent to keep the blankets from getting tangled up with the vacuum dressing on her left foot or any of the bandages on her graft or donor sites. A few nights ago, her music teacher introduced Zhou Lin to Mozart, and although she had never remembered hearing classical music before, as I tucked her in she asked me to let her listen to her Mozart CD with earphones as she drifted off to sleep. (Perhaps she was taken with Mozart, or perhaps it was just her attempt to block out her roommate's loud fascination with watching loud hip-hop music videos into the night.) At any rate, the feeling as I tuck Zhou Lin in and give her a tiny kiss on her head is very special and even holy. Even though having such an unstable life right now is tough for both of us, we both agree that we are glad we're together here in Boston.

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