TURNING SORROW INTO STRENGTH
Brave father finds a role model in his impaired son
STORY BY KLOYKAMOL SIRIBHAKDI, MAIN PHOTO BY YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
Walter Lee's main principle of parenting is fairness.
"If my son gets naughty or disobedient, he gets a smack, just like his brother and sister. He is unique, but not special," said Lee of his youngest son, Zy. This would be normal if you overlook the fact that the two-year-old boy has only one functional arm, half a right arm, a distorted left leg and no right leg at all.
But Lee insists on sticking to his principle, in every possible way. After a prime-time talk show featured the story of Lee and his son, a massive number of people were immensely moved by his positive attitude and courage to make sure his son has every opportunity a human being should have.
Zy was born with congenital limb deficiency, without any warning from doctors. His condition is very rare and difficult to treat compared to patients born limbless, who have better balance.
"Imagine the delivery room, which was full of joy and expectation. After the birth, there was only silence," Lee recalled the moment, a heartbreaking scene for any parent.
Lee's wife, Nok, cried for over three months. She could not bear the shock of carrying her child for nine months without knowing anything was wrong.
Lee managed to regain emotional control quickly.
"I'm the head of the family. I have a role to play, a duty to do. We have two other children to take care of. I don't have the luxury to remain shocked or upset," he remarked.
Lee, the owner of Venturetec Marketing Company Limited and a TV cooking show host, started searching for any possible treatments. Every doctor, every hospital told him the same bad news: Wait until the boy grows up and then give him artificial limbs. This news would sound rational and acceptable to most, but it was not good enough for Lee. He wanted immediate treatment.
"I intend to offer my son more choices. I want him to be able to stand and walk. This is a fundamental right for all humans, and is integral to their dignity. It's important to talk to people face to face without having to look up," Lee explained. "Children are the future. How can they bloom without a chance to show their potential?"
Eventually, with his friend's help, Lee found hope at Heidelberg Orthopaedic University Clinic, which has specialised in limb abnormalities and amputee patients since World War Two.
Last October, Lee and his wife took young Zy to the hospital. Despite the hope in his heart, Lee was still shocked when he was informed that the chance for Zy to stand and walk was only 80 per cent. Though Zy's hip is dislocated, the German doctors insisted he still may walk using only his tendons and muscles. The news was so wonderful but he still had a lot of things to be worried about. Zy had to be treated until he was fully grown. The first phase of the treatment would take almost six years.
"I was so glad with the news but I was afraid I wouldn't be able to afford it, as it would involve 17 years of treatment. Money was a big issue, and we had to take care of two other children. It's unfair if the decision effects them. But then again, like the old Japanese saying, 'Let tomorrow's wind blow tomorrow.' I decided to do it."
The first treatment started in March and lasted six weeks. Zy was attended to by a big team which consisted of an orthopaedist, a technician and other relevant specialists.
"I was impressed with their attitude. They argued and discussed issues in an attempt to find the best solutions, the best answers. It taught me that with the right attitude you can overcome anything,"
After his personal tragedy, Lee began looking beyond his immediate family. He wished for others who face a similar problem to receive the opportunity Zy has. His very first attempt was unsuccessful; no doctors, hospitals or medical schools accepted his invitation to travel to Germany to observe the treatment of his son. However, the recent visit of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at Heidelberg Orthopaedic University Clinic has sparked a bright future for patients with limb abnormalities in Thailand.
"In the future, Thailand could become a hub for treatment," Lee said hopefully.
Inspired by his first-hand experience, Lee also wants to set up a counselling centre.
"It's easy to understand why such a trauma could cause problems within a family. In our case, no one cared about our mental or emotional state. My wife cried every day. I admitted that I would never really understand her sorrow. A mother who carried her baby for nine months has created a special bond that is far beyond our understanding. Even now, my wife hasn't recovered completely. From the very beginning, I knew I had to heal Khun Nok first."
The story of Lee's family has received an unexpected and overwhelming response. Lee has taken countless phone calls from parents who share the same plight, thanking him for his strong will that has encouraged them.
"One women called to thank me. She said that after seeing them on TV, her husband, for the first time, held their disabled baby four months after he was born."
The little Zy has become an icon of hope. At the clinic at Heidelberg, the sight of the little boy joyfully walking around the hospital gave some patients a smile and some a tear.
"The doctors there said that my son really encourages their patients. His image is so powerful. It is human nature to feel better when they see others in a worse situation."
The incident also convinced Lee that human compassion still exists. One of his friends flew all the way from abroad just to give him a hug. Another one returned home earlier because he missed his wife and children after visiting Lee's family.
All in all, the most precious lesson is that the human spirit is hard to dampen.
"I will not allow my son to feel sorry for himself. People might call him names, but when you let yourself feel sorry for him or give up, that's the worst thing that can happen."
Lee insists on taking Zy to public places regularly to make him and the whole family become familiar with being stared at. As if he almost foretold events, Lee named the boy Zy, which is derived from the word Chai, meaning "victory".
"I believe normal and disabled people should be integrated. Everyone is born with their own kind of strength. It's up to you to find it."
Zy might have given him a shock at first, but he turned out to be a true gift for Lee.
"I often called him my little professor. He teaches me lots of things. He opens my eyes, and stimulates my thoughts and potential as a human being."