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Zhou Lin's Life with One Hand
September 23, 2006
Brecken Swartz
Zhou Lin and I have been hanging out a LOT at the hospital these days. Last week, she had surgery on her left hand to bring her finger stumps down into position for grasping, so now she has pins in her fingers to hold the tendons in place. She was virtually immobilized for a few days after the surgery, since the IV apparatus in her right arm made that arm virtually unusable, as well, but now at least the IV is out and she is able to use her right arm again. The doctors made the decision not to operate on her right hand at this point, because she already uses it well and it's questionable what she would be able to gain from surgery. As long as she has one hand for grabbing things (like a walker or furniture as she ambulates around) and one hand for more fine motor skills (like writing, painting, and using chopsticks), she really will have a remarkable range of function with those tiny hands.

The first week after the surgery was quite tough, since Zhou Lin was stuck in bed all the time without the use of her hands. She was very itchy and asked to be scratched frequently in different places. She was unhappy not to be getting enough exercise, so she asked me to get her a helium balloon that she could tie to her ankle and kick.

We've also been taking turns reading to each other -- she's been reading lots of stories to me in Chinese, and I read to her in English. (She can even join me on a lot of the English words now.) Both of our language skills definitely seem to be improving as we go through this time together, and the nurses have been excitedly telling me about the new things she is able to say to them in English from day to day. (She's as observant as a hawk about her care, and will quickly correct a nurse or me if we forget to do something, which is terrific.)

Zhou Lin's teachers have continued to come to visit her throughout this post-op period, although some days she is too sick to study much. Zhou Lin's mother sent some of her textbooks from China, and her tutors are also preparing some lesson material on their own with help from Chinese educational websites. Zhou Lin is still having her weekly lessons in math, Chinese, science, social studies, and the arts, and although her study time is much less than she would be getting at school in China, at least she feels that she is not falling completely behind while she is here.

The hardest part of hospital life for Zhou Lin is the food. She is completely sick of microwaved hospital meals, so nice Chinese people from the local community have been bringing in a wide variety of foods for her, and I've been trying my hardest to stir-fry dishes like her mother used to make (with little success, though). Zhou Lin has very discriminating taste, and so getting enough calories into her tiny body has been a challenge. The hospital discovered that she's lost almost 10 pounds since she arrived in the US (some of that being the weight of her amputated feet), so there has been a lot of work done to try to procure foods she will eat. She is currently only 62 pounds (too light for age 14), and we keep telling her that her main job right now is to eat more protein and fiber, or she'll never be able to build the muscle mass she'll need when she really starts getting up and walking. The only American food she really likes is pizza (the real kind from a pizzeria, not the microwave kind), although she unfortunately discovered after the pizza party in the hospital playroom last night that the first cup of Coca-Cola she managed to drink kept her up until almost 2:00am. I suppose it's back to her favorite beverage -- hot water -- along with more obligatory bottles of Ensure and Carnation Instant Breakfast.

Our big excitement this week was a trip out to the Shriners Orthopedic Hospital in Springfield -- a volunteer Shriner and his wife drove us out in the back seat of their big Cadillac. While we were out there, Zhou Lin had her right foot (the healthier one) molded, and her first check socket made. (A check socket is the clear plastic molded piece that conforms to a limb and then is slipped inside a prosthesis.) Although the constant up-and-down swelling of the foot made the fit not quite right, Zhou Lin was excited to get the feel of her first check socket, which she said was much more comfortable than she expected. We also had a chance to meet some other amputees, including a 3-year-old boy from China with malformed feet who was about to have a similar bilateral amputation to Zhou Lin's, and a number of American teenagers who have far less of their legs than Zhou Lin does, but who are walking around marvelously. Zhou Lin also got a full tour of the hospital in Springfield and got to meet some staff, including her new occupational therapist who plans to come up with some adaptive ways to get Zhou Lin cooking in the kitchen again. (Hallelujah! Not only will it help her become more independent again back at home, but she can start cooking some of her own food here, which should help significantly with her diet. She can hopefully teach me some things about Sichuanese cooking, which I'm really looking forward to.)

By the time we headed back to Boston from Springfield, Zhou Lin was pretty exhausted, as she often is after a full day of activities. She came back happy, though, with a bunch of stickers, stories, and two new stuffed animals -- a teddy bear that a nurse told her could remind her of her baby brother back home, and a little lion from her prosthetist, Brock, with wild orange hair coming every which direction out of his head, just like Brock's.

Zhou Lin stayed up late last night making a birthday card with bright glitter paints for Brock, who has been telling Zhou Lin that he wants the first dance with her as soon as she is walking again. Whenever he and the Chief of Staff at Springfield fight over who gets the honor of her first dance, Zhou Lin just giggles and giggles.

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